Referendums in Germany

Referendums in Germany are an element of direct democracy. On the federal level only two types of a mandatory binding referendum exist – in changing the constitution and in changing the state territories.

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All states have an enacted laws for popular indirect initiatives allowing to collect signatures for a request to the government. The government may issue a poll on any topic whereas the outcome is usually non-binding. The German referendum system has three types

  • Volksbegehren (literally people's request) is a citizens' initiative – if the government ignores the request it could directly lead into a "Volksentscheid"
  • Volksbefragung (literally people's inquiry) is non-binding facultative ballot question and the most common type of referendums
  • Volksentscheid (literally people's decision) is a binding plebiscite but this type is only used if the constitution requires it (mandatory).

The term Volksinitiative (people's initiative) is a synonym of Volksbegehren and it is the official term in Switzerland. On the municipal level the three types are paralleled with

  • Bürgerbegehren (literally citizens' request) as the local citizens' initiative
  • Bürgerbefragung (literally citizens' inquiry) for a local ballot question and
  • Bürgerentscheid (literally citizens' decision) for local plebiscite.

Note that in the city states the state citizens' initiative types are commonly called Bürgerbegehren while being at the same legal level as Volksbegehren in other Bundesländer states. Note that the term "Bürgerinitiative" (literally citizens' initiative) is used informally for non-partisan local campaign organizations (political action groups).

Federal Concept

Following World War II the new republic was founded with only minor elements of direct democracy. On the federal level there are only two mandatory constitutional referendum types – one is in case of enacting a new constitution (although changes to the constitution do not require a public vote and there is no provision for an initiative for a constitutional amendment) that has never been used although there was an argument in that direction during German reunification. The other type requires a public vote in case of restructuring the Bundesländer (states) ("Neugliederung des Bundesgebietes") which led to a referendum on the union of Baden and Württemberg into Baden-Württemberg in 1951 (accepted) and a referendum on the union of Berlin and Brandenburg into Berlin-Brandenburg in 1996 (rejected).


Originally none of the Bundesländer states had provisions for a general binding referendum ("Volksentscheid"). Only Hesse and Bavaria have a mandatory binding referendum on changes to the state constitution. Most states do however have a form of a general non-binding ballot question ("Volksbefragung") which has been used rarely however – the most important one had been the 1955 Saar Statute referendum.

General forms of direct democracy were first introduced in the communities with facultative ballot questions ("Bürgerbefragung") and public initiatives ("Bürgerbegehren") that are both non-binding. In some areas this has been expanded into a binding referendum type ("Bürgerentscheid") but almost universally facultative.

In some states there is however a general right on state popular initiatives ("Volksbegehren") which was used in Hamburg to push the state government to pass a law on a facultative binding state referendum ("Volksentscheid") in 2007.

Initiative Quorum

Following World War II the right to petition to the government was installed with high barriers. Any popular initiative had to filed with the authorities and the signatories have to identify before their signature is accepted. This is called "Amtseintragung" (literally administrative inscription) in most legal areas. The other type is commonly referred to as "Freie Sammlung" (literally free collection) where letters may be accumulated before being handed over. Naturally some of the latter signatures are found to be illegal which can be a source of dispute.

In order to push the government the initiative must reach a certain amount of valid signatures. The "quorum" is defined differently by each Bundesländer state.

concepts of referendums and initiatives in Germany
referendum provisions initiative requirements
legislative bodylegal foundationsignatory quorum
time limit / collection type
exclusion of topics
Baden-WürttembergArt. 59 und 60 of the state constitution;
§§ 25–39 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz
16,67 %
14 days
BavariaArt. 71, 72 und 74 of the state constitution;
Art. 63–74 of the Landeswahlgesetz
10 %
14 days
see also:de:Volksgesetzgebung in Bayern
BerlinArt. 59, 62, 63 of the state constitution;
§§ 10–28 of the Abstimmungsgesetz
7% (20% for constitutional changes)
4 months
Freie Sammlung
Landeshaushaltsgesetz, Abgaben,
Tarife öffentlicher Unternehmen,
see also:de:Volksgesetzgebung in Berlin
BrandenburgArt. 22 of the state constitution;
§§13–25, 56 und 60 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz
80.000 (200.000
when demanding reelections)
4 Monate
Dienst- und Versorgungsbezüge,
Abgaben, Personalentscheidungen
BremenArt. 70 und 71 of the state constitution;
§§ 8–21 of the "Gesetz über das Verfahren beim Volksentscheid"
10% (20% when demanding constitutional changes or reelections)
3 months
Freie Sammlung
Haushaltsplan, Dienstbezüge,
Steuern, Abgaben, Gebühren
HamburgArt. 50 der state constitution;
§§ 6–17 des Volksabstimmungsgesetzes
5 %
21 days
Freie Sammlung
Haushaltspläne, Abgaben,
Tarife der öffentlichen Unternehmen,
Dienst- und Versorgungsbezüge
see also:de:Volksgesetzgebung (Hamburg)
HessenArt. 124 of the state constitution;
§§ 1–15 of the Volksbegehrensgesetz
20 %
14 days
Mecklenburg-VorpommernArt. 60 of the state constitution;
§§ 11–17 of the VaG;
§§ 1–8 of the Durchführungsverordnung
no time limit
Freie Sammlung
NiedersachenArt. 48 of the state constitution;
§§ 12–23 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz;
§ 62d of the Geschäftsordnung des Landtages
10 %
6 months
Freie Sammlung
öffentliche Abgaben,
Dienst- und Versorgungsbezüge
Nordrhein-WestfalenArt. 2, 68 und 69 of the state constitution;
§§ 6–21 of the VIVBVEG;
§§ 2–8 of the Durchführungsverordnung VIVBVEG
8 %
8 weeks
Rheinland-PfalzArt. 107–109 of the state constitution;
§§ 61–76 of the Landeswahlgesetz;
§§ 75–83 of the Landeswahlordnung
2 months
SaarlandArt. 61, 99 und 100 of the state constitution;
§§ 2–13 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz;
§§ 1–7 of the Volksabstimmungsordnung
20 %
14 days
may not include topics with financial implications,[1]
Abgaben, Besoldungen,
Staatsleistungen, Staatshaushalt,
SachsenArt. 70, 72–74 of the state constitution;
§§ 16–25 des VVVG
6–8 months[2]
Freie Sammlung
Abgaben-, Besoldungs-,
Sachsen-AnhaltArt. 81 of the state constitution;
§§ 10–19 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz
11 %
6 months
Freie Sammlung
Schleswig-HolsteinArt. 42 der state constitution;
§§ 11–19 of the Volksabstimmungsgesetz
5 %
6 months
Dienst- und Versorgungsbezüge,
öffentliche Abgaben
ThüringenArt. 81 und 82 of the state constitution;
§§ 9–18 of the "Gesetzes über Verfahren beim Bürgerantrag, Volksbegehren und Volksentscheid"
10% (8%)
4 months (2 months)
Freie Sammlung (Amtseintragung)
Dienst- und Versorgungsbezüge,
Abgaben und Personalentscheidungen
Bundesrepublik Deutschland[3]Art. 29 GG Abs. 4–6 GG;
§§ 14, 24, 26 und 36 of the law on referendums and initiatives ("Gesetzes über das Verfahren bei Volksentscheid, Volksbegehren und Volksbefragung") in 29 GG Abs. 6 GG
§§ 1–45 und 93 of the regulation on conduct ("Verordnung zur Durchführung des Gesetzes nach Art. 29 GG Abs. 6 GG")
10% of the voters
in the affected area
the referendum may only target questions of territory changes (see de:Neugliederung des Bundesgebietes")

Notable referendums in Germany

Territory of the Saar Basin (1920-1935)
Saar Protectorate (1947–1956)
Eastern Germany (1949–1990)
post-1990 Germany


  1. Die Formulierung in der saarländischen Verfassung ist die restriktivste in Deutschland. Faktisch sind alle Volksbegehren unzulässig, die irgendeine finanzielle Auswirkung haben würden, also auch Gesetzesvorschläge die Einsparungen zur Folge hätten.
  2. Art. 72 Sächsische Verfassung sieht vor, dass die Frist mindestens 6 Monate beträgt, § 20 VVVG bestimmt, dass die Frist maximal 8 Monate beträgt.
  3. Ein Volksbegehren ist nur für den Fall der Gebietsneugliederung nach Art. 29 GG Abs. 4–6 GG möglich. Das Volksbegehren findet nicht bundesweit, sondern nur in dem eine Neugliederung begehrendem Gebiet statt.
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