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Executive Summary

German election laws and campaign finance laws differ significantly from those of the United States.  In Germany, the political parties are tightly run organizations that finance election campaigns, nominate candidates, exact membership dues from their members, and subject members in Parliament to strict caucus rules.  The parties receive government funds and are subject to some not very onerous disclosure requirements.  The individual candidates or members of Parliament are minor players in these systems.

The length of election campaigns is not defined by federal law.  State and local laws limit campaign billboards to a few weeks before the election.  State laws limit campaign advertising in radio and television to a few spots that are allotted in the month preceding the election.  By an agreement among the states, the political parties may not purchase any advertising time on radio or television, and are thereby limited to the few officially granted campaign spots.

Germany has provided public funding to the political parties since 1958.  Since then, the Federal Constitutional Court has frequently ruled on the fair distribution of government funds to the parties and on the tax treatment of private donations, thus causing frequent changes in legislation.  Currently, the overall annual amount that can be allotted to the parties is €133 million.[1]  Parties receive funds in proportion to the latest election results plus a partial matching of €0.38 per donated Euro for private donations up to €3,300.  The parties, in return, must submit yearly financial statements to the legislature.  In these, only contributors of more than €10,000 per year must be named.  Private individuals may deduct 50 percent of their donations below €3,000 (twice that for joint returns) from taxable income, or claim a tax credit of €825 (€1650 for joint returns).  There are no limits on private or corporate contributions.

Aside from a prohibition on influencing the voters on Election Day in or near the polling place, Germany has no federal legislation on political advertisements.  Political speech may be robust, but it is not exempt from the governance of the criminal laws, and these contain stringent provisions against various forms of hate speech, insult, and defamation. There are no limits on campaign spending.

Introduction – The Role of the Parties in Elections and in the System of Government

Germany elects the Federal Diet, the representative chamber of the bicameral federal legislature, by popular vote.[2]  As a rule, these elections are held every four years,[3] and these are the only popular federal elections in Germany.  The members of the Federal Council, the other chamber of the federal legislature, are appointed by the state governments,[4] and the Federal President is elected by the Federal Diet and an equal number of electors from the state parliaments.  There are, however, popular elections for state parliaments[5] and for the European Parliament,[6] and these are relevant for federal campaign finance law (see Part III(A), below, “Public Funding of the Parties”).

            The election system for the Federal Diet combines a closed list proportional representation system with a single-member district system.  Each voter casts two ballots: one for a state-wide party list and the other for one of the candidates competing in a district.  Half of the representatives are the winners of the district ballots, and the other half are chosen from the party lists in proportion to the election outcome. [7]

Under this election system, the political parties are the main players, and this is a significant difference from the United States, where the individual candidates are the main actors in federal elections.[8]  The preponderant role of the parties in Germany may explain why German and U.S. campaign legislation is so different.[9]  In Germany, campaign finance law and accountability requirements focus on the party, not the individual candidate.

Germany even guarantees the role of the political parties in the political process in the Basic Law, the Federal Constitution, which in its article 21, paragraph 1 provides as follows:

Political parties shall participate in the formation of the political will of the people.  They may be freely established.  Their internal organization must conform to democratic principles.  They must publicly account for their assets and for the sources and use of their funds.[10]

In Germany, the political parties also dwarf the role of the individual legislator in the legislative process:  Germany is a parliamentary republic in which the executive branch of government is provided by the same political party or coalition of parties that holds a majority in the Federal Diet.[11]  Moreover, the individual representatives in the party caucuses are bound by a strictly enforced voting discipline.[12]

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Duration of Election Campaigns

A.  Federal Law  

German federal law contains no provisions limiting the duration of election campaigns.  Moreover, there appears to be no consensus in case law or legal literature on how long election campaigns are or should be, and it is not clear whether the federal legislature would have the power to limit their duration.[13]  The Federal Constitutional Court held in 1966[14] that there is a short period before an election that is definable as the campaign period.  Its length, however, is not specified, and it may vary for different purposes.  Since then, however, the Court has frequently overruled its holdings in the 1966 decision, most notably in a 1992 decision in which the Court held that the political parties should be subsidized by the government on a continuous basis, and not only during definable campaign periods.[15]

According to the Court, however, the day on which the Federal President announces the date of the election[16] is of significance for governmental activities.[17]  This announcement is usually made six months before the election.[18]  The Federal Constitutional Court held in 1977 that from that date on the executive branches of the federation and the states must be particularly careful when providing public information so as to remain neutral and not to engage in election campaigning.[19]

B.  State Law – Billboards

The limitation of billboards and flyer distributions to a short period preceding the election is a general practice in the German states.[20]  In Bavaria, for instance, the State Ministry of the Interior issued a Directive on the use of public streets and roads for campaign purposes.[21]  It limits the use of loudspeakers and billboards on state-owned roads to six weeks before the election for federal and European elections, to four weeks for state elections, and to two weeks for municipal elections.  In addition, this Directive recommends that the local communities enact similar rules for the roads owned by them.

C.  State Law – Radio and Television Broadcasts

A short campaign period is also taken for granted under the state laws and interstate agreements that deal with the giving of air time by public and private radio and television broadcasters to campaigning political parties.[22]  In Bavaria the campaign spots of the public broadcasters are granted during a period of exactly thirty-one days before the election.[23]  The same time frame is provided for the private broadcasters of most of the states by a joint communication of the state supervisory agencies for private broadcasters.[24]

The campaign spots on the broadcast media are not a very sizeable benefit.  Not only are they granted for a short campaign period but, depending on state law or agreement, they may not exceed broadcasting times of one and one-half minutes or two and one-half minutes per advertisement.  Moreover, only a handful of campaign spots are allocated to the major parties, and proportionally less to smaller parties.  For instance, for the federal election of 1990, the Christian Democratic Union, one of the largest parties in the country, was only granted eight advertisement spots in each of the public television broadcasting networks.[25]  In 2005, the state supervisory agencies for the private broadcasters published guidelines indicating that a total allocation of twelve minutes per campaign period per broadcaster was appropriate for each of the two largest political parties, while smaller parties should get six or three minutes, depending on their size.  The parties were to decide how to break this time down, whether, in the case of the larger parties, they wanted eight one and one-half minute slots, or twenty-four half-minute periods.[26]

The severity of limiting campaign airtime for the political parties is enhanced by the consensus of the German states that the political parties may not purchase advertisement time from broadcasters.[27]  This prohibition is valid at any time, not only during the campaign period, and it effectively limits the period during which the public must put up with campaign spots.  Nevertheless, the public is not deprived of political information in the broadcast media because the broadcasters have the mandate to inform the public on political matters and they air programs in which politicians participate in discussions or interviews.[28]

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Funding and Disclosure

A.  Public Funding of the Parties

The political parties receive governmental funds for all their constitutional functions,[29] and campaigning is one of these functions.  In fact, the parties are supported by the government on a continuous basis.  Public funding is granted to all parties that have obtained 0.5 percent of the vote in the latest national or European election, or one percent in the latest state election in one of the German states.[30]  Funding is limited in two ways:  the overall limit for all annually disbursed funds is 133 million Euros, and a party may not receive more public annual funds than it has earned or otherwise generated during the year.[31]

Within these limits, each year the parties are granted €0.70 for each obtained vote, except that €0.85 are granted for the first four million votes obtained in an election.  Generally, the vote for the party list is counted for this purpose, and not the ballot for the single constituency candidate (see Part I,above, “Introduction”).  In addition, the parties are entitled to matching funds of €0.38 for each Euro received from membership fees and individual donations not exceeding €3,300.  The government distributes funds four times a year, in the form of estimated advance payments that are based on former entitlements, and these payments are later adjusted to the appropriate amount as computed by the statutory formula.[32]

B. Private Funding of the Parties

In Germany, private funding of political parties is encouraged, as a counterweight to heavy government funding.[33]  The law is silent on donations to individual representatives for their own political use, yet these are permissible and parliamentary rules provide disclosure rules and limits for these donations that are similar to the statutory rules governing donations to the parties.[34]  They are, however, of lesser practical importance, and the statutory provisions presume that the donation is given to the individual in his role as a representative of the party, by obligating this individual to turn party donations over to the party as soon as possible.[35]

There is no limit on the amounts that individuals or corporations may contribute and only a few restrictions apply.[36]  Public disclosure of the donor must be made in the annual financial statement of the party only if his donations exceed €10,000 per year.  Private donations in excess of €50,000 must be disclosed immediately.  Donations from charitable organizations and from trade unions, professional associations, and industrial or commercial associations are prohibited.  The law expresses this prohibition by stating that these associations may not be used as a conduit for funneling funds to the parties.[37]  Donations from governmental bodies, from aliens outside the European Union if the donation exceeds €1,000, and anonymous donations in excess of €500 are also prohibited.

In the past fifty years, the tax deductibility of political donations was the subject of many decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court, and German law was often changed accordingly.[38]  In 1994, the deductibility of corporate political donations was abolished.[39]  Currently, individual donors may deduct from income political party contributions, be they donations or membership dues, up to an annual amount of €1,500 (€3,000 for couples filing jointly),[40] or they may claim an annual tax credit of half the donated amount up to a maximum credit of €825 (€1650 for couples filing jointly).[41]

C.  Administration, Disclosure and Enforcement

The President of the Federal Diet receives and publishes the annual financial statements of the parties.  He also evaluates these statements and publishes his findings as a legislative document.[42]  If indicated, he may appoint a commission of independent experts to deliberate on any desirable changes in party finance law.[43]

The President of the Federal Diet also administers the public funding program.  Based on the financial statements submitted by the parties, he determines the amount of the public funding for each party, by, if necessary, cutting all the entitlements proportionally to stay within the overall statutory limit of €133 million.  The Federal Audit Office examines the work of the President of the Federal Diet and also examines the financial statements of the parties.  The payments to the political parties are made from federal funds, and the parties at the federal level must allocate an appropriate portion of the funds to the party units at the state and local levels.[44]

The disclosure obligations of the parties are based on section 21, paragraph 1 of the Basic Law,[45] which provides that the parties must account for their receipts, assets, and expenditures.  These requirements are further specified in the Political Party Act.[46]  Each party must submit an annual financial statement to the President of the Federal Diet.  These statements are submitted by each party at the state level and are then consolidated into an overall report by the party at the federal level.  The financial statements must live up to proper accounting practices and are subject to extensive review.  The reports are published as legislative documents.

In the annual report, the income of the party must be broken down into the categories of:

  • Membership dues;
  • Mandatory contributions of officials;
  • Donations from individuals;
  • Donations from corporations;
  • Receipts from commercial activity and participations;
  • Receipts from other assets; and
  • Receipts from events, publications, etc.

Fiscal and criminal sanctions apply to serious contraventions of the accounting and disclosure requirements.[47]  If, due to inaccuracies in the financial statement, a party obtains public funds to which it is not entitled, the President of the Federal Diet makes the appropriate corrective adjustment.  In addition, a penalty is imposed for any wrong statements.  It amounts to twice the discrepancy between the shown amount and the actual amount.  If a party fails to list a donation in its financial statement or has retained prohibited donations, the penalty is three times the concealed or wrongly received amount.[48]

Criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine apply to intentional violations that aim at concealing the receipt or use of funds.  The offense can be committed by any conduct that causes the financial statement to be wrong, also by incorrectly breaking major donations into smaller donations (so as to avoid disclosure of the donor), and failure of the recipient of a donation to forward it to the proper party representative.[49]  The latter version of this offense guards against the creation of unlisted slush funds that may come into existence when receipts are not properly recorded and thereby allow for their unrecorded disposition.[50]

Enforcement of the accounting and disclosure rules appears to have been lax until 2002, when the accounting provisions were tightened in a reform[51] that was the response to a major party financing scandals of the 1990s.  At that time, Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the head of the Christian Democratic Union, the largest German conservative party, had accepted large donations without officially turning them over to the party, thus allowing him to use the funds for political purposes, but without reflecting their use in the party’s accounts.[52]

D. Actual Funding of the Parties

In 2006, the political parties received about 30 percent of their income from the government, about 28 percent from membership dues, an additional 12 percent in mandatory contributions from elected and appointed officials, 10 percent from individual donations, and 3.5 percent from corporate donations.[53]  In addition, the parties had some receipts from commercial endeavors and investments.[54]  The figures for 2005 were similar,[55] and the figures for both years were typical for the situation in recent years. 

Due to the low threshold for funding eligibility, minor parties have benefitted from public funding.  Whereas they could not expect to get many donations, the public funds allow them to function.  Among all the larger parties, public funds make up a similar percentage of their overall receipts.  There are, however, systemic differences in the funds received from other sources.  The conservative parties are more likely to obtain corporate donations, whereas the Socialist Party generates a sizeable income from party-owned commercial endeavors, particularly newspapers and other media enterprises.[56]

D. Parliamentary Rules for Members of the Federal Diet

Parliamentary Rules of Conduct[57] provide that members of the Federal Diet must inform the President of the Federal Diet of any donations received and honoraria and salaries earned while serving in the Federal Diet.  For individual donations in excess of €5,000, the name of the donor must be provided, and donations from one donor exceeding €10,000 in a calendar year will be published in parliamentary sources and on the webpage of the Federal Diet.  Private donations that may not be received by the parties may also not be received by the members of the Federal Diet, and financial sanctions apply to the contravention of these prohibitions.  Some rudimentary information on salaries and honoraria will also be published if they exceed €10,000 per year.

Regulation of Political Advertisements and Free Speech

Aside from a prohibition of advertising, influence-peddling, or signature-collecting on Election Day in or near the polling place,[58] no specific rules on political advertisements are contained in German federal law.  In particular, there is no ceiling on campaign expenditures.

The parameters of permissible campaigning conduct are set by constitutional guarantees on the one hand, and the applicability of criminal law, on the other.  The most pertinent constitutional guarantees are contained in the Federal Constitution’s article 5, which guarantees freedom of expression, and in its article 21, paragraph 1, which establishes the role of the political parties in the political process.

According to a 2002 decision of the Federal Constitutional Court,[59] the parties have the right to campaign by means of posters, flyers, and similar modes of distributing campaign materials.  In exercising this right, however, the parties remain bound by restrictions of administrative and civil law, as for instance, an individual’s right to deny the acceptance of advertising material in his mailbox,[60] or city ordinances limiting the use of billboards.[61]

In a 1978 decision,[62] the Federal Constitutional Court ruled on the applicability of criminal law to campaign activities.  The Court held that broadcasters may refuse campaign spots that obviously violate criminal provisions.  In the case at issue, the Communist parties of several states had published statements that employed very disparaging language about parliaments and democracy, and, according to the Court, this may have constituted offenses under section 90(a) of the Criminal Code (CC),[63] prohibiting the disparagement of the state and its symbols, and also under CC section 90(b), prohibiting the anti-constitutional disparagement of constitutional organs.

Among the other criminal offenses that conceivably could be perpetrated in campaign spots is incitement to hatred against segments of the population, in particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups, as stated in CC section 130.  Incidentally, this provision also penalizes the dissemination of the holocaust lie.  Section 131 of the CC also could be committed in advertisements.  This provision prohibits the glorification of violence in print, the media, or public statements or displays.  In addition, the CC contains a group of offenses dealing with insult, malicious gossip, and disparagement[64] that also could become applicable in aggressive campaigning.

The above-cited German criminal provisions and their applicability to political speech show a major difference between the constitutional guarantees of free speech in the United States and Germany.  The German guarantee of free speech is not absolute.  In Germany, article 5 of the Basic Law guarantees free speech to the extent that it is not abridged by statutory law.  Moreover, the constitutional guarantee of human dignity also imposes limits on free speech.[65]

Concluding Remarks

From the German point of view, the German system of financing election campaigns through the public funding of political parties has many advantages.  German politicians may spend less time on fund-raising than their American counterparts.  In addition, the accounting responsibilities of the parties free individual members and candidates from burdensome paperwork, while the focus of the disclosure rules on large donors protects the privacy of candidates, elected officials, and small donors.  Germans care deeply for their privacy.  Moreover, the absence of spending limits and limits on private donations makes for an uncomplicated and easy to administer financial system.

The drawback of the German system, from an American perspective, is the overwhelming role of political parties in public life.  It is hard to conceive that American politicians and the American public would be content with a political system in which the individual politician is reduced to the role of a cog in the well-oiled party machine.

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For more information on Germany see:

Prepared by Edith Palmer, Senior Foreign Law Specialist

May 2009

  1. As of the date of this report, 1 Euro is equal to 1.33370 U.S. dollars. [Back to Text]
  2. Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland [GG], May 23, 1949, BUNDESGESETZBLATT [BGBl., official law gazette of the Federal Republic of Germany] 1, art. 38. [Back to Text]
  3. The legislative period is four years, GG, art. 39, but it can be shortened if the legislature casts a vote of no-confidence in the Federal Chancellor. GG, art. 67. [Back to Text]
  4. GG, art. 51. [Back to Text]
  5. G. LICHTENBERGER, STAATSBÜRGER-TASCHENBUCH 202 (München, 2000). [Back to Text]
  6. Europawahlordnung, repromulgated May 2, 1994, BGBl. I at 957, as amended. [Back to Text]
  7. Bundeswahlgesetz [BWahlG], repromulgated July 23, 1993, BGBl. I at 1288, as amended, §§ 4–7; G. SMITH, DEMOCRACY IN WESTERN GERMANY 130 (New York, 1979). [Back to Text]
  8. J. Griffin, Campaign Finance in the United States, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Issue Brief (Sept. 2008), available at (external link) (last visited May 1, 2009). [Back to Text]
  9. For the relevance of the electoral system on the candidate- or party-centeredness of campaign finance rules, see J. Johnson, Democracy and Disclosure: Electoral Systems and the Regulation of Political Finance, 7 Election Law Journal No. 4 (2008), available at
    /action/doSearch?target=article &volume=7&year= 2008&issue=4&journalCode
    =elj&journal=elj&searchText=Joel+W.+Johnson&filter=single (external link)
    (last visited May 2, 2009). [Back to Text]
  11. GG, arts. 63, 64. [Back to Text]
  13. C. WALTHER, WAHLKAMPFRECHT 29 (Baden-Baden, 1989). [Back to Text]
  14. Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG], decision of July 19, 1966, 20 ENTSCHEIDUNGEN DES BUNDESVERFASSUNGSGERICHTS [BVerfGE] 56. [Back to Text]
  15. BVerfG, decision of Apr. 9, 1992, 85 BVerfGE 264. [Back to Text]
  16. BWahlG, § 16. [Back to Text]
  17. BVerfG, decision of Mar. 2, 1977, 44 BVErfGE 125. [Back to Text]
  19. BVerfG, decision of Mar. 2, 1977, 44 BVErfGE 125. [Back to Text]
  20. WALTHER, supra note 13, at 30. [Back to Text]
  21. Staatsministerium des Inneren, Werbung auf öffentlichen Strassen, June 30, 1980, BAYERISCHER STAATSANZEIGER No. 30 (1980). [Back to Text]
  22. A. SCHULZE-SÖLDE, POLITISCHE PARTEIEN UND WAHLWERBUNG 190 (Frankfurt, 1994). [Back to Text]
  23. Satzung über die Wahlwerbung in Angeboten nach dem Bayerischen Mediengesetz, Feb. 4, 1999, BAYERISCHER STAATSANZEIGER No. 6, as last amended by Satzung, May 8, 2008, § 8, Bayerischer Staatsanzeiger No. 20, available at (external link) (PDF) (last visited May 4, 2009). [Back to Text]
  24. Rechtliche Hinweise der DLM zu den Wahlsendezeiten für Politische Parteien, July 6, 2005, available at (external link) (PDF).
    [Back to Text]
  25. C.V. Mannstein, Was Werbung wirklich leisten kann, FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG, Nov. 17, 1990, at 13. [Back to Text]
  26. Rechtliche Hinweise der DLM zu den Wahlsendezeiten für Politische Parteien, July 6, 2005, available at (external link) (PDF).
    [Back to Text]
  27. Rundfunkstaatsvertrag, Dec. 31, 1991, as amended, BAYERISCHES GESETZ- UND VERORDNUNGSBLATT 132 (2007), § 7 ¶ 8 & § 42, ¶ 2, reprinted in W. HAHN & T. WESTING, BECK’SCHER KOMMENTAR ZUM RUNDFUNKRECHT 1 (München, 2008). [Back to Text]
  29. Parteiengesetz [ParteiG], repromulgated Jan. 31, 1994, BGBl. I at 149, as last amended by Gesetz, Dec. 22, 2004, BGBl I at 3673, § 18, available at parteieng.pdf (external link) (PDF). [Back to Text]
  30. J. IPSEN, PARTEIENGESETZ 195 (München, 2008). [Back to Text]
  31. ParteiG, § 18, para. 5. [Back to Text]
  32. ParteiG, § 20. [Back to Text]
  34. Verhaltensregeln für Mitglieder des Deutschen Bundestages, Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages, repromulgated July 2, 1980, BGBl. I at 1237, as amended, Anlage 1, available at http://www.bundes (external link). [Back to Text]
  35. ParteiG, § 25, para. 1; IPSEN, supra note 30, at 329. [Back to Text]
  36. ParteiG, § 25. [Back to Text]
  37. IPSEN, supra note 30, at 347. [Back to Text]
  38. Id. at 907. [Back to Text]
  39. Id. [Back to Text]
  40. Einkommensteuergesetz [EStG], repromulgated Oct. 19, 2002, BGBl. I at 4211, as amended, § 10b. [Back to Text]
  41. EStG, § 34g. [Back to Text]
  42. ParteiG, § 23a. [Back to Text]
  43. ParteiG, § 18 para. 7. [Back to Text]
  44. ParteiG, § 19-22. [Back to Text]
  45. See PRESS AND INFORMATION OFFICE, supra note 10, and accompanying translation. [Back to Text]
  46. ParteiG, §§ 23–31. [Back to Text]
  47. ParteiG, §§ 31a–31d. [Back to Text]
  48. ParteiG, § 31c. [Back to Text]
  49. ParteiG § 31d. [Back to Text]
  50. IPSEN. supra note 30, at 340.[Back to Text]
  51. Achtes Gesetz zur Änderung des Parteiengesetzes, June 29, 2002, BGBl. I at 2268. [Back to Text]
  52. BUNDESTAG DRUCKSACHE 14/4747 at 24, available at (external link). [Back to Text]
  53. Einnahmen der Bundestagsparteien in 2006, UNKLARHEITEN.DE, (external link) (last visited May 2, 2009).[Back to Text]
  54. Id. [Back to Text]
  55. Einnahmen der Bundestagsparteien in 2005, UNKLARHEITEN.DE, (external link) (last visited May 2, 2009). [Back to Text]
  56. BUNDESTAG DRUCKSACHE 14/4747 at 31, available at (external link). [Back to Text]
  57. Verhaltensregeln für Mitglieder des Deutschen Bundestages, Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages, repromulgated July 2, 1980, BGBl. I at 1237, as amended, Anlage 1, available at http://www. (external link). [Back to Text]
  58. BWahlG § 32. [Back to Text]
  59. BVerfG, reasoned chamber decision denying certiorari, Aug. 1, 2002, reprinted in NEUE JURISTISCHE WOCHENSCHRIFT 2938 (2002). [Back to Text]
  60. Id. [Back to Text]
  61. Verwaltungsgericht München, decision of May 26, 2002, BAYERISCHE VERWALTUNGSBLÄTTER 732 (2002). [Back to Text]
  62. BVerfG, decision of Feb. 14, 1978, 47 BVerfGE 198. [Back to Text]
  63. Strafgesetzbuch [StGB], repromulgated Jan. 2, 1975, BGBl I at 1, and Nov. 13, 1998, BGBl. I, 3322, as amended.

    [Back to Text]
  64. StGB §§ 185–200. [Back to Text]

Last Updated: 07/01/2015