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Political parties in Germany fund their activities mostly through public funding, membership fees, and donations. They may generally accept donations without a limit, however, they are generally forbidden from accepting donations from foreign sources and anonymous donations that exceed €500. The rules for illegal donations generally also apply to members of the German Bundestag and members of state parliaments. However, individual members are allowed to accept benefits of monetary value to, among other things, foster interparliamentary and international relations. The rules do not apply to candidates who are running for office but are not currently holding office.  

So-called party sponsoring, where a business or other entity bears costs related to certain political activities in exchange for some form of publicity, is not regarded as a donation, but as taxable income from events and other income-related activities. It has to be declared in the annual statement of accounts, but it is not subject to the prohibitions on donations.

Germany has been repeatedly criticized by the Group of States Against Corruption of the Council of Europe for not implementing recommendations to enhance the transparency of party funding.

I. Overview of Party Funding in Germany

Political parties in Germany receive government funds to partially finance the functions incumbent upon them under the German Basic Law, the country’s Constitution.[1] Campaigning is one of these functions.[2] All parties that have obtained at least 0.5% of the vote in the latest federal or European election, or 1% in the latest state election in one of the German states, have a right to receive funding.[3] The more votes a party has received, the more funding it will get.[4] There is a maximum upper limit of €190 million (about US$214 million) of public funding for all parties.[5] In addition, a political party may not receive more public funding than the sum of its annual income.[6]

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II. General Rules for Donations to Political Parties

Another way for parties to fund their activities are donations. Section 25, paragraph 1 of the Political Parties Act provides that a political party may generally accept donations without a limit.[7] A donation is defined as any revenue that the political party receives in excess of recurring membership fees and additional recurring payments by party members beyond their membership fees.[8] Donations include all kinds of benefits of monetary value.[9] The German Federal Constitutional Court has held that examples include “providing material resources, personnel, or established organizational structures free of charge” or “organizing free events or taking measures to campaign for the party.”[10] A party member who receives a donation on behalf of the party must immediately forward it to the member in charge of the party’s finances.[11]

Paragraph 3 lists accounting requirements for donations. Donations must be declared in the annual statement of accounts, which the political party must submit to the President of the German Bundestag (parliament).[12] Furthermore, donations from one source exceeding €10,000 (about US$11,281) in a single calendar year must be listed separately with the name and address of the donor.[13] Donations exceeding €50,000 (about US$56,404) must be reported immediately to the President of the Bundestag, who will publish the amount of the donation and the name and address of the donor in a parliamentary report.[14]

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III. Donations to Political Parties from Foreign Sources

In general, political parties may not accept donations from sources outside of Germany.[15] An exception applies if

  • the donor is a German citizen, is from an European Union (EU) member state, or is a company headquartered in the EU or at least 50% owned by a German or EU citizen;
  • the donor belongs to a national minority from a country that borders Germany and the donation goes to a political party representing that minority; or
  • the donation from a foreigner does not exceed €1,000 (about US$1,128).[16]

The explanatory memorandum to the Political Parties Act states that the exception for foreign donations of less than €1,000 was enacted because the chance of foreign influence is low in these cases due to the small amount.[17]

Furthermore, the Political Parties Act prohibits accepting anonymous donations in excess of €500 (about US$564).[18]

A political party that receives donations from a prohibited source must forward the donation without undue delay to the President of the Bundestag, or at the latest with the submission of the annual statement of accounts for the year in question.[19] If a party accepts an illegal donation and does not forward it to the President of the Bundestag, the party is liable to pay three times the amount of the illegal donation.[20]

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IV. Donations to Individual Members of the German Bundestag

The Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag contain rules on donations received by individual members of the Bundestag that the donor wants to go to the member and not the party.[21] The rules provide that the prohibitions for party donations and the obligation to forward illegal donations to the President of the Bundestag are applicable, mutatis mutandis, to donations given to members of the German Bundestag.[22] Individual members of the Bundestag are therefore also generally prohibited from accepting foreign donations.

However, it should be noted that the rules of procedure make an explicit exception for benefits of monetary value that a member receives.[23] Unlike political parties, individual members are allowed to accept benefits of monetary value from otherwise illegal sources to, among other things, foster interparliamentary and international relations. They may therefore accept invitations from foreign governments and institutions to “represent parliament externally.”[24] Members are only obligated to notify the President of the German Bundestag, who will publish the information in the Official Handbook of the German Bundestag and on the website of the German Bundestag.[25] This exception does not mean that they are allowed to accept such benefits in exchange for representing foreign interests in Parliament.[26] The prohibitions codified in the Act on the Members of the Bundestag still apply.[27]

Members who violate the rules in the Code of Conduct will be reprimanded by the President of the Bundestag if they acted negligently.[28] In all other cases, the President will inform the Bureau (Präsidium) and the heads of the parliamentary groups. The Bureau will give the member the possibility to make a statement and then decide whether to impose sanctions. The determination that a member has violated the Code of Conduct will be published in a parliamentary report without prejudice to other penalties according to the Members of the Bundestag Act.[29]

It should be noted that the Code of Conduct only applies to sitting members of the German Bundestag.[30] It is not applicable to politicians who are running for office and have not held office yet.

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V. Lawsuit to Obligate Parliament to Release Internal Information on Donations

In 2017, the organization Parliament Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the German parliament to release internal information and documents in connection with donations declared in the 2013 and 2014 annual statement of accounts submitted by the political parties.  The goal of the request was to review how diligently the parliamentary administration checks the statements or is able to check the statements and whether they follow up on questionable donations. After the German parliament refused to comply with the request, Parliament Watch filed suit.[31]

On January 27, 2017, the Administrative Court of Berlin ruled in favor of Parliament Watch and obligated the German parliament to release the requested information and documents.[32] It held that the Political Parties Act only regulates mandatory disclosures in the annual statement of accounts but does not block releases of information on the basis of the general Freedom of Information Act. The Political Parties Act is not lex specialis to the Freedom of Information Act, because they do not regulate the same subject matter.[33]

The German Bundestag appealed the ruling to the Higher Regional Court Berlin-Brandenburg. In April 2018, the Court of Appeals confirmed the decision of the lower court and ruled against the German Bundestag.[34] The Bundestag has again appealed this ruling on questions of law to the highest administrative court, the Federal Administrative Court.[35] A decision is still pending.

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VI. Party Sponsoring

So-called party sponsoring is not regarded as a donation, but as taxable income from events and other income-related activities.[36] Party sponsoring is understood as “a business or other entity bearing costs related to certain political activities, in exchange for some form of publicity.”[37] It has to be declared in the annual statement of accounts, but it is not subject to the prohibitions for donations, for example, the prohibition on accepting donations from foreign sources. It has been criticized as a way to circumvent the transparency rules.[38] A motion by the Green Party to regulate party sponsoring was not taken up by the German Bundestag.[39]

In April 2019, the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was fined €402,900 (about US$454,653) by the Administration of the German Bundestag for accepting illegal donations in two cases.[40] A Swiss advertising agency had provided support for the state election campaigns in 2016 and 2017 in the form of posters, flyers, and advertisements for an amount equivalent to €89,800 (about US$ 101,335). The Administration of the German Bundestag classified this support as an illegal donation from a foreign source. The AfD stated that it will contest the fines, because the advertisements were not illegal donations but party sponsoring and, therefore, taxable income.[41]

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VII. Transparency of Party Funding

Germany has also been repeatedly criticized by the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) of the Council of Europe for not implementing recommendations to enhance the transparency of party funding. The most recent addendum to the GRECO report stated that

GRECO is disappointed by the low level of progress achieved. Some clarifications, e.g. that political parties are prohibited from taking anonymous donations (except in regard of small amounts) are to be welcomed, but other considerations made have not resulted in much progress, even if some recommendations have been met partly. GRECO notes a clear lack of political will to enhance the system, ever since the adoption of the Evaluation Report more than nine years ago and, as a consequence, this system falls short of European standards.[42]

GRECO criticized, among other things, the lack of transparency regulations regarding donations to political candidates and the ineffectiveness of the sanctions regarding infringements of the Code of Conduct of Parliamentarians.

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VIII. Political Advertising

There are no specific rules on political advertising or other types of communications about elections during campaigns. Political advertisements fall under freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of the arts, protected by article 5 and article 21 on political parties of the German Basic Law.[43] Article 5 of the Basic Law is applicable to all persons, whether German or foreign.[44] Limits on political advertisements or other types of communications can be enforced when they violate general laws, for example, criminal laws.[45]

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Jenny Gesley
Foreign Law Specialist
August 2019


[1] Gesetz über die politischen Parteien [Parteiengesetz] [PartG] [Act on Political Parties] [Political Parties Act], Jan. 31, 1994, Bundesgesetzblatt [BGBl.] [Federal Law Gazette] I at 149, § 18, para. 1, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/partg/PartG.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/VF2A-6RDJ, unofficial English translation available at https://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/en/dam/jcr/bceaa8ef-5c4c-40f7-ae27-63c5f2e0aea6/parteiengesetz_engl.pdf (English version updated through Sept. 24, 2009), archived at https://perma.cc/GDV5-5NJQ; Grundgesetz [GG] [Basic Law], May 23, 1949, BGBl. I at 1, as amended, art. 21, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/gg/GG.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/8UJX-HC4T, unofficial English translation available at http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_gg/englisch_gg.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/R94W-YBZ3.

[2] Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG] [Federal Constitutional Court], 85 Entscheidungen des Bundesverfassungsgerichts [BVerfGE] [Decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court] 264, 285, http://www.servat.unibe.ch/dfr/bv085264.html, para. 88, archived at https://perma.cc/54NB-J6JQ.

[3] Political Parties Act, § 18, para. 4.

[4] Id. § 18, para. 3.

[5] Id. § 18, paras. 2 & 5.

[6] Id. § 18, para. 5.

[7] Id. § 25, para. 1, sentence 1.

[8] Id. § 27, para. 1, sentence 3.

[9] Id. § 27, para. 1, sentence 4.

[10] BVerfG, supra note 2, para. 167.

[11] Political Parties Act, § 25, para. 1, sentence 2.

[12] Id. §§ 23, 24.

[13] Id. § 25, para. 3, sentence 1.

[14] Id. § 25, para. 3, sentences 2, 3.

[15] Id. § 25, para. 2, no. 3.

[16] Id.

[17] Deutscher Bundestag: Drucksachen und Protokolle [BT-Drs.] 14/8778, at 16, http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btd/14/087/1408778.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/778S-VTHY.

[18] Political Parties Act, § 25, para. 2, no. 6.

[19] Id. § 25, para. 4.

[20] Id. § 31c, para. 1.

[21] Verhaltensregeln für Mitglieder des Deutschen Bundestages (Anlage 1 der Geschäftsordnung des Deutschen Bundestages [BTGO1980Anl 1]) [Code of Conduct for Members of the German Bundestag (Annex 1 to the Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag]) [Code of Conduct], June 25, 1980, BGBl. I at 1237, 1255, as amended, http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/btgo1980anl_1/BTGO1980Anl_1.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/3XLZ-S8FH.

[22] Id. § 4, para. 4.

[23] Id. § 4, para. 5.

[24] BT-Drs. 13/834, at 5 et seq., http://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btd/13/008/1300834.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/DB7J-QSE6; Frank Sobolewski & Frank Raue, Wissenschaftliche Dienste. Deutscher Bundestag. Infobrief. Geldwerte Zuwendungen an Abgeordnete. Rechtslage nach dem Abgeordnetengesetz und den Verhaltensregeln [Parliamentary Research Services. German Bundestag. Information Letter. Contributions of Monetary Value to Parliamentarians. Legal Situation According to the Members of the Bundestag Act and the Code of Conduct] 6 (2014), https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/294932/da77f9e63b7c3c6d4ae86a39be666c4d/Geldwerte-Zuwendungen-an-Abgeordnete-data.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/6E6Z-U8DS.

[25] Political Parties Act, § 4, para. 5.

[26] Sobolewski & Raue, supra note 24, at 6.

[27] Gesetz über die Rechtsverhältnisse der Mitglieder des Deutschen Bundestages [Abgeordnetengesetz] [AbgG] [Members of the Bundestag Act], Feb. 21, 1996, BGBl. I at 326, as amended, § 44a, para. 2, sentence 2, https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/abgg/AbgG.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/LG3A-2RQG, unofficial English translation available at https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_abgg/englisch_abgg.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/8KLU-4J6N.

[28] Code of Conduct, supra note 21, § 8, para. 2.

[29] Id.; Members of the Bundestag Act, § 44a.

[30] State parliaments have comparable rules.

[31] Martin Reyher, Urteil: Bundestag muss abgeordnetenwatch.de interne Dokumente zu Parteispenden herausgeben [Court Decision: Parliament has to Release Internal Information on Party Donations to abgeordenetenwatch.de] (Feb. 8, 2017), https://www.abgeordnetenwatch.de/blog/2017-02-08/urteil-bundestag-muss-abgeordnetenwatchde-interne-dokumente-zu-parteispenden, archived at https://perma.cc/XW43-2WR3.

[33] Id.

[34] Oberverwaltungsgericht Berlin-Brandenburg [OVG Berlin-Brnadenburg] [Higher Regional Court Berlin-Brandenburg], Apr. 26, 2018,  docket no. OVG 12 B 7.17, ECLI:DE:OVGBEBB:2018:0426.12B6.17.00, archived at https://perma.cc/J32G-WSR2.

[35] Bundesverwaltungsgericht [BVerwG] [Federal Administrative Court], docket no. BVerwG 7 C 20.18, decision still pending.

[36] Political Parties Act, § 24, para. 4, no. 7, GRECO, Compliance Report on Germany 11, para. 52 (Dec.9, 2011), https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=09000016806c6365, archived at https://perma.cc/CC5X-HLKK.

[37] GRECO, Third Evaluation Round. Evaluation Report on Germany on Transparency of Party Funding (Theme II) 24, para. 109 (Dec. 4, 2009), https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/ DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=09000016806c6362, archived at https://perma.cc/BHY6-6L9A.

[38] Christina Deckwirth, Parteisponsoring im Bundestag: Union muss Blockadehaltung aufgeben![Party Sponsoring in the Bundestag: The Union Must Abandon Its Obstructive Approach!], LobbyControl (Dec. 1, 2016), https://www.lobbycontrol.de/2016/12/parteisponsoring-im-bundestag-union-muss-blockadehaltung-aufgeben/, archived at https://perma.cc/7M93-2F2S.

[40] AfD muss 402.900 Euro Strafe zahlen [AfD is Fined 402,900 Euros], WELT, Apr. 16, 2019, https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article192032185/AfD-muss-wegen-illegaler-Parteispenden-402-900-Euro-Strafe-zahlen.html, archived at https://perma.cc/JR3B-38KZ.

[41] Id.

[42] GRECO, Third Evaluation Round. Second Addendum to the Second Compliance Report on Germany 6 (June 4, 2019), https://rm.coe.int/third-evaluation-round-second-addendum-to-the-second-compliance-report/168094c73a, archived at https://perma.cc/46G4-RG6L.

[43] Basic Law, art. 5, paras. 1 & 3, art. 21.

[44] Id. art. 5, para. 1 states “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources . . . .” (Emphasis added.)

[45] Id. art. 5, para. 2.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020