Takeaways from German federalismWith less than 10 years of experience in federalism, Nepal has much to learn from Germany.
Countries with similar government structures differ significantly in political, social, economic and historical aspects. These differences exist in executive, legislative and judiciary systems, electoral processes, parliamentary representation and working styles. A German university recently offered an up-close look of the German federal system, which is the focus of this piece.
Germany is around 2.5 times bigger and around three times more populous than Nepal. Its per capita income is around $53,000, around 40 times more than that of Nepal. The German constitution, the 'Basic Law,' was promulgated in May 1949. Based on this, the history of German federalism spans approximately 75 years.
Germany operates on a bottom-to-top federalism model, unlike Nepal's top-to-bottom approach. It comprises 16 provincial entities known as "Länder," the singular of which is called "Land". Power distribution occurs between the federal and the Länder governments. The 11,00 local governments operate under the jurisdiction of the Länder constitutions.
Despite being under the control of the Länder, the local governments in Germany enjoy more authority in politics, economics, planning, administration and resource allocation compared to Nepal's local governments. The local level is responsible for most of Germany's local service delivery and infrastructure development functions.
Bundesrat and Bundestag
The Länders wield significant influence in German federalism. Article 50 of the Basic Law stipulates that "The Länder shall participate through the Bundesrat in the legislation and administration of the federation and matters concerning the European Union." The Bundesrat functions as the second parliamentary chamber or the upper house, similar to Nepal's National Assembly. The lower house, or the House of Representatives, is the Bundestag.
Professors Sabine Kropp, Kirsten Jörgensen and Johanna Schnabel from the Free University of Berlin shared with me that a notable aspect of the German federal model, unlike other federal systems, is the direct involvement of individual Land governments in the decisions made by the federation through the Bundesrat.
Additionally, Professors Isabella Proelle and Harald Fuhr from the University of Potsdam told me that the Bundesrat fulfils two crucial functions: Safeguarding the interests of the Länder concerning the federation and, indirectly, the European Union (EU). It also integrates the political and administrative expertise of the Länder into the legislation, administration of the federation and EU affairs.
German federalism's uniqueness stems from the Bundesrat's composition, where members are appointed by the Länder governments, each represented by three to six members based on population, totalling 69 members.
Dr. Gabriel Krieger, the Head of the Directorate-General Committees of the Bundesrat, informed me that all federal government bills must be presented first to the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat conducts initial and final readings of the bills and possesses veto power in the legislative process. In cases where the Bundesrat disagrees with bill revisions in the Bundestag, the matter proceeds to the mediation committee. Interestingly, while the Bundestag is approximately nine times larger than the Bundesrat, the mediation committee mandates equal representation from both the Houses.
German federalism excels in fostering autonomy and upholding principles of parliamentary democracy. Bundestag elections should occur two months before the term ends. Mid-term elections should be held within 60 days. Moreover, the Bundestag meeting must be convened within 13 days of the election. In Nepal, the President convenes and ends Parliamentary sessions based on the government's recommendation, sometimes even without the Speaker's awareness. The government in Nepal often tries to evade parliamentary proceedings, while in Germany, the head of the parliament holds the authority to initiate and adjourn house meetings. The roles and processes between the Bundestag and Bundesrat in convening meetings differ. In Germany, if the President, Chancellor, or one-third of the Bundestag members request a meeting, the Bundestag President must convene it within 13 days.
A significant aspect of German federalism is that Bundesrat members can participate in the Bundestag meetings, while lower house members aren't allowed in Bundesrat sessions. The parliamentary systems in many countries do not permit cross-house participation except in joint-house scenarios, underscoring a dedication to federalism and Länder by the Bundestag.
The head of state in Germany is the President, and the head of government is the Chancellor. The President's role is ceremonial, and in its absence, the Head of the Upper House assumes the duties—a structure distinct from other countries.
The President nominates candidates for Chancellor in the Bundestag, and the Chancellor isn’t required to be a Bundestag member. Generally, the party leader holding the majority of members in the Bundestag becomes the Chancellor's candidate. If the President's candidate fails to secure the vote, the Bundestag must elect a Chancellor within 14 days. The mid-term elections are triggered if no majority is confirmed during this period.
When it comes to administrative federalism, the consent of the Länder is necessary if the federal government intends to change any administrative structure or issue additional legal methods. The Bundesrat plays a pivotal role, acting not only as a representative of Land governments but also in some administrative affairs. Its consent is required for administrative guidelines and standards.
According to Professors Sabine Kuhlmann and Jochen Franzke from the University of Potsdam, 10 percent of public service employees are employed by the federal government, 55 percent by the Land governments and the remaining 35 percent at the local level. This distribution not only showcases the robustness of administrative federalism but also emphasises the subsidiarity principle’s prominence.
Even with the German population being three times larger than Nepal's, the country operates with just 15 ministries whereas it runs into dozens in Nepal. The German Länder typically has eight to 10 ministries, but many Germans still question the necessity of these many ministries at federal and Länder levels. Nepal could draw significant lessons from this aspect.
In German federalism, security responsibilities are delegated to the Länder, empowering them with control over personnel administration, veto power in law drafting and authority in appointing judges. With less than 10 years of experience in federalism, Nepal has much to learn from studying the diverse dimensions of German federalism.
As suggested by the Bundestag members, Her Excellency Renate Künast and His Excellency Paul Lehrieder, in the German Parliament, a crucial step toward enhancing federalism is clarifying the specific roles of each government level. The public yearns for peace, effective service delivery, good governance, the rule of law and development. These esteemed members wisely advised that Nepal stands to gain valuable insights from Germany's various federalism models. Embracing and adopting facets of German federalism could propel Nepal to effective and inclusive governance, ultimately benefiting its diverse regions and populations.