Urban Leadership in German Local Politics: The Rise, Role and Performance of the Directly Elected (Chief Executive) Mayor


In the post‐1945 rebuilding of local democracy and local government in West Germany the local government statutes enacted by each of the regions (Länder) created a conspicuous variety of local governments that ranged from the council/directly elected (chief executive) mayor form (installed in the South German Länder of Baden‐Württemberg and Bayern) to that of the (British local government‐derived) council/council‐elected mayor, and the city director form (introduced in the Land of Nordrhein‐Westfalen). This made almost for a natural experiment with different local government models. Since the early 1990s, in a striking sequence of legislative moves, all Länder have adopted the (‘South German’) directly elected (chief executive) variant. The legislative motives behind this shift were twofold: first, to strengthen the direct democratic rights of citizens (‘local democracy’); and, second, to improve the capacity of local leadership in running and managing the city (‘governability’). The article argues that — as evidenced by the 50 year‐long practice in the South German Länder — the directly elected (chief executive) mayor form seems capable of fulfilling the double goal of strengthening the administrative leadership in local government and of enhancing its political accountability to the citizens. Furthermore, experience indicates that the potentially ‘over‐powerful’ position of the directly elected mayor (as political and administrative leader) has been counterbalanced and held in check by an active local council and by vigorous local political parties.