The Basic Law stipulates that the structure of Land government must "conform to the principles of republican, democratic, and social government based on the rule of law" (Article 28). Thirteen of the Länder are governed by a cabinet led by a minister president together with a unicameral legislative body, the Landtag (pl., Landtage). The relationship between the legislative and executive branches mirrors that in the federal system: the legislatures are popularly elected, typically for four years, and the minister president is chosen by a majority vote among Landtag members. The minister president appoints a cabinet to run Land agencies and carry out the executive duties of the Land government. Until 1999, Bavaria was the only Land with a bicameral legislature; the Landtag being popularly elected, with the second chamber, the Senate, consists of representatives of the major social and economic groups in Bavaria.
In 1998, voters approved a proposal to abolish the Senate, with effect from December 1999. In the city Länder of Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg, the executive branch consists of a popularly elected Senate. The senators carry out duties equivalent to those of the ministers in the larger Länder. The senate chooses a senate president in Bremen and a mayor in Berlin and Hamburg to serve as chief executive. Land cabinets consist of about ten ministers; the most important is the minister of the interior, who directs the internal administration of the Land and commands the police.
Politics at the Land level often carry implications for federal politics. Opposition victories in Landtag elections--which take place throughout the federal government's four-year term--can weaken the federal government coalition. This was the case for the fall from the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer in 1963 and that of Willy Brandt in 1974. The Land elections are also viewed as a barometer of support for the policies of the federal government. If the parties of the governing coalition lose support in successive Land elections, those results may foreshadow difficulties for the federal government. The outcome of Land elections also directly affects the composition of the Bundesrat. In the early 1990s, the opposition SPD commanded a two-thirds majority in that legislative chamber, which made it particularly difficult for the CDU/CSU-FDP government to achieve the constitutional changes it sought. Today (2003) the situation is reversed, the SPD government being severely hindered by a large CDU majority in the Bundesrat. At the same time, the powers of the Lands in their own territories have been much diminished in the last decades with the ever-increasing amount of federal legislation. Due to these twin problems, a commission has been formed to examine the possibility of instituting a clearer separation of federal and Land powers.
The city-states of Berlin and Hamburg are not subdivided. The state Bremen consists of two district-cities, Bremen and Bremerhaven. In the other Länder there are the following subdivisions:
Gemeinden are ruled by elected councils and an executive, the mayor, who is chosen by either the council or the people, depending on the Bundesland. The "constitution" for the Gemeinden is created by the Lands and is uniform throughout a Land. Gemeinden have two major policy responsibilities. First, they administer programs authorized by the federal or Land government. Such programs typically might relate to youth, schools, public health, and social assistance. Second, Article 28(2) of the Basic Law guarantees Gemeinden "the right to regulate on their own responsibility all the affairs of the local community within the limits set by law." Under this broad statement of competence, local governments can justify a wide range of activities. For instance, many municipalities develop the economic infrastructure of their communities through the development of industrial parks. Local authorities foster cultural activities by supporting local artists, building arts centers, and/or having fairs. Local government also provides basic public utilities, such as gas and electricity, as well as public transportation. Most of these functions are currently (2003) under threat since the communities are notoriously badly financed; the fact that they receive most of their money from the other levels instead of from taxes they themselves set the rates of and collect is a big factor in this.
- Landschaftsverbände ("area associations"): The most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia is uniquely divided into two Landschaftsverbände, one for the Rhineland, one for Westphalia. This was meant to ease the friction caused by uniting the two culturally quite different regions into a single Land after WWII. The Landschaftsverbände retain little power today.
- Regierungsbezirke ("gouvernmental districts"): The large states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt are divided into administrative regions, or Regierungsbezirke (officially not called "Regierungsbezirk" in Rhineland-Palatinate).
- Kreise ("counties"): Every state consists of counties, or Kreise; there are 438 counties; in addition there are county-free cities; a county-free city is by itself a county and at the same time a municipality. Each consists of an elected council and an executive, who is selected by the council and whose duties are comparable to those of a US county manager, supervising local government administration. The Landkreise have primary administrative functions in specific areas, such as highways, hospitals, and public utilities.
- Ämter ("offices"): In some states there is an administrative unit between counties and municipalities. These units are called Ämter (singular Amt), Samtgemeinden, Verbandsgemeinden or Verwaltungsgemeinschaften.
- Gemeinden ("municipalities"): Every county and every Amt is subdivided into municipalities; there are 13,912 municipalities, which are the smallest administrative units in Germany. Cities are municipalities as well, which have city rights (Stadtrecht). Nowadays this is mostly just the right to be called a city; however, in older times it included many privileges such as to have their own taxes or to allow industry inside cities only.
- List of cities in Germany includes a table of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants (Städte) and a general listing of cities, other municipalities, and villages.