The German presidency is essentially a ceremonial position as laid down in the nation’s Basic Law, but the president is a moral authority, and that authority allows him a certain leeway.
The president’s role is illustrated perfectly in this speech given by former president Roman Herzog in Liepzig, formerly in soviet East Germany before the reunification of the country. “You have not only had to cope with breakneck and radical changes to every aspect of your daily lives and habits, but you have had to learn how to handle this new deal, and change things energetically. This gives you an experience your fellows in West Germany do not have, which one day could prove valuable for the entire country, and even serve as an example.” The president is the guardian of the Basic Law, and in the heady days of reunification the job was held by the sixth “Bundespräsident”, Richard von Weizsaecker. The president is elected by the Federal Assembly. This is made up of 1224 electors: half are the elected members of the Bundestag parliament, the other half are delegates sent by each of Germany’s 16 federal länder, or states. It is therefore an indirect vote, for a mandate of five years, renewable once. The assembly gets three chances to vote a candidiate in. An absolute majority of 613 votes is needed to win in the first two rounds. If that fails, a simple majority is required in the third round. There are two specific cases when the president must step in to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. The first is when parliament cannot decide on a chancellor, and the second is when the chancellor calls for, but fails to carry a vote of no-confidence. In July 2005 Gerhard Schroeder did just that: “I’m calling on the federal president to dissolve the 15th parliament and call an early election.” The president’s final duty is to represent the country on an international level, signing treaties with foreign nations, and dealing with both German and foreign diplomatic corps.