A more direct democracy in Germany (Part 4)

The community

by Christian Fischer

This article follows the parts 1 to 3, which already appeared in Current Concerns. Here, too, the focus is not primarily on the concrete abuse of democracy in Germany, but on the existing institutions that are already available to the sovereign, the citizenry, as well as on possibilities for their direct democratic further development.


This article deals with the municipality. It is the lower unit of a political community. In a democracy the self-administration of the people begins here. This also applies in the highly networked 21st century, in which of course many political decisions have to be taken at higher levels. But even today there are many issues directly affecting the community, its infrastructure, its spatial order, etc., which should be in the hands of the citizens concerned – including the necessary financial sovereignty for it. Municipality also refers to the administrative district, for small municipalities taking over at least parts of the self-administration. Last but not least, it is an essential component of political education if democracy is practised at this level which can be directly experienced by the citizens. This raises awareness and promotes practical experience for a democratic culture in general.

The reality

In Germany the municipalities with their self-government look back on a 200-year history, leaving aside the history of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (962-1806). In Germany (in 2016) there are 11,059 municipalities, 294 rural districts and 107 urban districts. In 1967 there were still 24 438 municipalities.
In contrast to Great Britain and Sweden, for example, the municipalities in Germany do not have a separate administrative structure in addition to the state administration, but are integrated into it and thus at the same time - like the federal states - also executive bodies of the superordinate levels of state decision-making.1
Two questions are decisive for a democratic evaluation: How does internal democracy function in the municipalities? How are the competences distributed between them and the higher levels of government?
The municipal regulations in the federal states are not uniform, but show an astonishing diversity. The starting point after the Second World War was the influence of the Americans, who put more emphasis on direct-democratic elements, and by the British, who preferred strong local parliaments, with anexecutive head of administration. These differences can still be noticed today in the American-influenced south and the British-influenced north of our country, although reforms in the 1990s have brought greater unification.
Since then, there have been directly elected mayors everywhere, who at the same time exercise the function of administrative heads. Underneath there is the professional and unelected administrative level and the elected council, which is not a parliament in the legislative sense, but a political decision-making body on substantive issues. There are still differences: in southern Germany the mayor is not only head of administration but also chairman of the council and thus has greater powers than the mayor in northern Germany, including Hessen, where the council has a stronger weight towards the mayor.
The members of the Council are not professional politicians, but receive very managable expense allowances for their temporary work. In some cases they are released from their professional duties, which also leads to the fact that the municipal councils are disproportionately composed of self-employed persons, leading employees from the private sector, civil servants and public employees as well as pensioners.
The party ties between council members and mayors are less obvious than at the higher levels of state and federal government. But here, too, there are differences, from North Rhine-Westphalia with the strongest party ties to Baden-Württemberg with the least. At the municipal level, free voter associations and direct citizen participation are playing an increasingly important role almost everywhere. This applies not only, but above all to southern Germany, where Bavaria stands out with more than 6,000 referendums and citizens’ petitions in the last 10 years alone. This is certainly because in Bavaria (also in Thuringia!) a quorum of only 10-20 % is needed, while in the other federal states it is 20-25 % - up to the “leader” Saarland with 30 %, where practically no direct democracy is alive. However, here too, as in the case of voting at state level, financial and organisational issues are not allowed to be the subject of these initiatives.
What competences do the municipalities have now? Rudzio sums it up in his standard work as follows: “The municipalities and districts are only the socmen of the federal states.”2
The federal state parliaments decide on the municipal constitutions. The municipalities may decide on their facilities such as school buildings, transport companies, cultural facilities, municipal roads, development plans, landscape protection, waste disposal, etc. In addition, they are executive bodies for the laws on social assistance, youth welfare, housing benefit, immission control, food law, etc. passed by the federal and state governments. These “delegated tasks” account for 75-90 % of municipal administrative activities.
In the past, many municipal tasks have increasingly been outsourced to outsourced autonomous units or private companies. According to a 2005 survey, this affected around 15-20% of municipal tasks, including the privatisation of entire waterworks. However, thanks to various citizens’ decisions, some of these projects have again been re-municipalised.
The question of the financial autonomy of the municipalities is crucial. The municipality receives its own funds primarily from trade tax, property tax and fees for its services, whereby these may cover the maximum costs. Together, these revenues cover far less than half of the budget. The “rest” is allocated from assignments from the higher state level. Thus, the almost only own lever which the municipalities themselves can influence is thus the trade tax, which leads to a cost-reducing competition for trade settlements between the municipalities and in structurally weak areas, especially in the east, the dependence on the state is even greater.

Some perspectives

If the word municipal self-government is to be taken seriously, the internal order itself should come under the decision-making power of each community instead of being provided by the state parliament. However, this initially only affects the internal order of the municipality, not its financial autonomy. This depends on the distribution of the tax revenue between the federation, the federal states and the municipalities. Today decisions at all these levels would be required if a new distribution were to take place in Germany. The ideal that the municipality is basically the first place for tax collection, from which decision is taken what will be passed on to higher levels of government, is, historically, not given here.
In order to bring about changes in this direction, similar citizens’ initiatives would have to take action at all three levels, since no voluntary “disempowerment” can be expected from federal and state politicians. This recognition once again emphasises the democratic necessity of low-threshold referendums at all levels – especially on directly financially relevant issues that have been excluded from referendums so far. Thus establishing municipal autonomy as the basis of democracy would be a complex project in Germany, which requires fundamental reforms as a prerequisite: more comprehensive referendum possibilities than are available today. And the citisens must be willing to understand municipal autonomy as the very basis of a democracy. So far, this has been demanded only by a few voices in the political arena.
If there was greater financial autonomy municipal tasks and possessions were not to be “outsourced”, i.e. “the disposal of the silverware” for liquidity reasons, but to be left to one’s own decision-making power. For example, municipalities are currently entitled to 80 % of trade tax, but only 15 % of income tax and 2.2 % of turnover tax – although every single job is located in a municipality and every single purchase action takes place in a municipality. Although the municipalities receive allocations from the remaining revenues, by the higher levels of government they are dependent on them and are not self-determined.
If these decision-making powers were different, exactly sorted from bottom to top, then decisions could also be taken more indirectly on federal and state expenditure, not least, for example, on arms expenditure and military deployments. On the other hand, the municipality cannot, of course, control all public money to the superior state levels as sovereignly as it could if it were an independent state and the federal state and the state were abroad. The municipality is part of the state, and in any case it must be ensured that it can fulfil its superordinate tasks. The desirable path to greater municipal autonomy can only be achieved through cooperation between the various levels – if possible with the direct participation of the sovereign.
For historical reasons, citizens’ awareness of the importance of greater municipal autonomy was not too strongly developed over long stretches; it has rather declined in recent decades as a result of incorporations and mergers. The number of municipalities has been halved for 50 years, thus many municipalities have been enlarged. As shown by studies in both Germany3 and Switzerland4, the willingness of citisens to participate actively in political life is rather lower in larger municipalities.
The discussion about the Municipal Code – direct election of the mayor? – Stronger competence of the council? Separation of the political and administrative levels, etc. – which has sometimes taken place in recent times – is of secondary importance and can lead to different “right” answers depending on regional traditions. In this field, however, Municipal Codes could be democratised in such a way that districts and parts of larger communities would gain more autonomy within the community. Particularly important at the municipal level is the use of existing direct-democratic possibilities, combined with the prospect of lowering the quorums and bringing greater financial competence “down” from the higher levels of government.
The basic idea remains: institutional structures that facilitate the participation of citizens in political life will also promote this participation. And a more direct participation of citizens in political life will hamper tendencies among political actors who are not oriented towards public interest and the honest mediation of various interests. That is the perspective for a sustainable democracy.    •

1    The following information is based on the presentation of: Rudzio, Wolfgang.  Das politische System der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Wiesbaden 2019, 10th edition, p. 319 ff.
2    ibid., p. 320
3    Rudzio, Wolfgang.  Das politische System der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Wiesbaden 2019, 10th edition
4    www.nzz.ch/schweiz/die-gemeindeversammlung-ist-nicht-totzukriegen-ld.1451754
5    ibid.

(Transation Current Concerns)

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