Germany, a member of the European Union (EU), is a representative democracy with a vibrant political culture and civil society. Political rights and civil liberties are largely assured both in law and practice. The political system is influenced by the country’s totalitarian past, with constitutional safeguards designed to prevent authoritarian rule. Although generally stable since the mid-20th century, politics are experiencing tensions following an influx of asylum seekers into the country and the growing popularity of a right-wing party, among other issues.
- Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), saw heavy losses in September’s federal elections, while the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag for the first time. Merkel clinched fourth term as chancellor, though a coalition government had not yet been formed at year’s end.
- The first same-sex marriage in Germany took place in October, after the Bundestag approved such unions in June. Previously, same-sex couples had been limited to civil unions that did not provide all of the same rights as marriage.
- In June, the Bundestag passed a hastily drafted law compelling social media companies to delete language deemed to clearly constitute illegal hate speech within 24 hours of being reported, and content that appeared to be illegal hate speech within seven days.
Federal elections in September 2017 saw heavy losses for the governing coalition, comprised of the CDU-CSU and Social Democratic Party (SPD). While fewer people sought asylum in Germany in 2017 than in the preceding two years, migration and asylum issues were prominent throughout the election campaign. The AfD, whose leaders during the campaign called for hard-line immigration policies including the deportation of large numbers of refugees, finished third in the election and became the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in nearly six decades. At times, the AfD campaign also featured Islamophobic rhetoric.
Subsequent coalition talks between the CDU-CSU, pro–free market Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens broke down in November over a failure to reach consensus on issues including refugee and energy policies, and the formation of the new government was uncertain at the end of 2017. Merkel will continue to lead Germany’s acting government until a new one is formed.
During the year, lawmakers passed a controversial law compelling social media companies to delete language deemed to clearly constitute illegal hate speech within 24 hours of being reported, and content that appeared to be illegal hate speech within seven days. The law was enacted despite broad opposition by free speech activists, NGOs, and the German tech industry, which cautioned that it could lead to the improper censorship of content posted to social media by private individuals. Meanwhile, a three-year parliamentary inquiry into surveillance of German targets by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), in collaboration with Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), ended in 2017 without conclusive results. The government also pushed through a law enabling security services to use spyware to monitor encrypted messaging services under certain circumstances.
In June, the Bundestag approves legislation allowing same-sex marriage, and the first such unions took place in October.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The German constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the Bundestag (Federal Parliament), as well as an upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which represents the country’s 16 federal states. Germany’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen by the Federal Convention, a body formed jointly by the Bundestag and state representatives. The president can serve up to two five-year terms. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD was elected president in February 2017.
The federal chancellor—the head of government—is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a legislative session. The chancellor’s term can be cut short only if the Bundestag chooses a replacement in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence. Angela Merkel has served as chancellor since 2005, and will look to form a new government in 2018.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The Bundestag is elected at least every four years through a mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts, which can lead the number of seats to vary from the minimum 598. The 2017 elections saw a total of 709 representatives elected to the Bundestag. While the elections were conducted peacefully and without disruptions, there were some concerns about the potential for the public release of hacked materials, which could be used to compromise lawmakers or parties, and about the spread of disinformation on social media ahead of the elections. However, some safeguards designed to lessen the impact of a potential release of hacked materials were implemented ahead of the polls. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe deemed the election transparent and free from manipulation.
Merkel’s CDU-CSU won 246 seats. The SPD, the CDU-CSU’s coalition partner in the last government, took 153 seats. Both parties posted their worst results since 1949. The FDP reentered the Bundestag with 80 seats, and the Greens won 67. The far-left party the Left, which is widely viewed as a successor to the East German communists, took 69 seats. The right-wing populist AfD entered the Bundestag for the first time in its history, taking 94 seats, posting particularly strong results in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Following the breakdown of coalition talks between the CDU-CSU, FDP, and the Greens, the formation of the new government was uncertain at the end of 2017.
In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education, policing, taxation, and spending. State governments appoint Bundesrat members, and in this manner can influence national policies. Four state elections took place in 2017.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Germany’s electoral laws and framework are fair and impartial. A failure to reform the problem of so-called overhang seats led to an inflation of numbers of Bundestag members following the 2017 elections. (German voters cast two ballots—one for a candidate in their constituency and another for a party, with the latter vote determining the total of seats a party will hold in the Bundestag. If a party wins more seats in the first vote than are permitted by results of the second, it gets to keep these “overhang” seats. The extra seats are costly, and in the past have been deemed unconstitutional for allowing a party more seats than it is formally allotted.) With 709 members, Germany now has the world’s second-largest national parliament, after China.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
The dominant political parties have traditionally been the SPD and the CDU-CSU. Parties do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation, although under electoral laws that, for historical reasons, are intended to restrict the far left and far right, a party must receive either 5 percent of the national vote or win at least three directly elected seats to gain representation in the parliament.
Support for the AfD has risen in recent years, as the party has moved further to the right of the political spectrum. While the increase in popularity has shaken the German political system, most parties oppose the AfD. In 2017, this opposition included a procedural reform in the Bundestag that prevented an AfD member who had described the Holocaust as an “effective tool to criminalize Germans and their history” from serving in the ceremonial post of chairman by seniority.
An attempt to outlaw the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NPD), an anti-immigration, anti-EU party that has been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, failed in 2017. The Federal Constitutional Court in January found the party to be unconstitutional, but deemed it to be not influential enough to merit a party ban.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
While German government is very much consensus oriented, opposition parties have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections. Merkel, during her time as chancellor, has changed her coalition partners a number of times.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable?
The German government is democratically accountable to the voters, who are free to throw their support behind their preferred candidates and parties without undue influence on their political choices.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Germany’s constitution gives all citizens age 18 or older the right to vote, and this guarantee applies regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, some groups are underrepresented in politics. The 2017 federal elections saw a decrease in the representation of women in the Bundestag, down to 30.9 percent, the lowest number since 1998. Eight percent of Bundestag members are from immigrant backgrounds, having at least one parent who was born without German citizenship. About 22.5 percent of people living in Germany have immigrant backgrounds or are immigrants themselves.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Democratically elected representatives decide and implement policy without undue interference.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
While Germany generally has strong and effective safeguards against corruption, a number of corruption scandals have recently been uncovered on a local level. In 2017, questions arose in the media about improper collusion between German politicians and figures in the automobile industry, which is among the most important sectors of the German economy.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. However, watchdogs continue to express concerns about a controversial 2015 data retention law, which they view as a threat not just to general privacy but also to whistleblowers, who could be punished under a section detailing illegal data handling. Whistleblowers receive few legal protections in Germany.
Transparency International and other NGOs have criticized Germany for having loose regulations on lobbying, and lacking a centralized lobbying register, as well as for imperfect freedom of information legislation. In late 2016, Germany joined the Open Government Partnership, and in 2017 the government published a National Action Plan that detailed initiatives designed to improve transparency and encourage citizen involvement in government.
|Are there free and independent media?
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. Hate speech, such as racist agitation or anti-Semitism, is punishable by law. It is also illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler. In August 2017, the Interior Ministry banned the online platform Linksunten Indymedia, stating that it publishes material supporting violent leftwing extremism.
At the July 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg, 32 journalists saw their accreditation withdrawn, with authorities citing security concerns. In August, the Federal Ministry of the Interior admitted that at least in four cases the withdrawal of the accreditation had been a mistake.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, eight states have passed laws prohibiting schoolteachers from wearing headscarves, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for civil servants.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is generally respected, though legal prohibitions on extremist speech are enforceable in school and university settings.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Private discussion and internet access are generally unrestricted, but recent developments have prompted concern about government surveillance of private communications. In 2013, documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA, in collaboration with Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), had secretly collected extensive data on communications in Germany. A parliamentary inquiry into the nature of cooperation between the NSA and BND closed in 2017. Its results were inconclusive, and opposition lawmakers claimed the inquiry had been obstructed. Additionally, the Bundestag in June passed a law allowing state security services, when conducting criminal investigations, to use spyware to conduct surveillance of encrypted online messaging services like WhatsApp. Opponents of the law have moved to challenge it before the Federal Constitutional Court at year’s end.
A debate surrounding online hate speech continued in 2017. In June, the Bundestag passed a hastily drafted law designed to fight hate speech, which came into effect in October. It compels social media companies to delete language deemed to clearly constitute illegal hate speech within 24 hours of being reported, and content that appears to be illegal hate speech within seven days. The law was enacted despite broad opposition by free speech activists, NGOs, and the German tech industry, which cautioned that it could lead to the improper censorship of content posted to social media by private individuals.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to new laws that threaten free private speech online, and because a special inquiry into the participation of the BND in a U.S. spying program ended without drawing clear conclusions about alleged wrongdoing.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the German constitution and is generally respected in practice, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing democratic order. However, in July 2017, authorities denied a permit to organizers of a planned protest camp to be erected near the site of the G20 summit in Hamburg. Organizers appealed the decision, but courts ultimately upheld the ban, saying the planned camp was primarily an overnight accommodation, as opposed to a legally protected demonstration.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Germany has a vibrant sphere of NGOs and associations, which operate freely.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are generally free to organize, and play an important role in shaping Germany’s economic model.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judiciary is independent, and generally enforces the rights provided by Germany’s laws and constitution.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
The rule of law prevails in Germany. Civil and criminal matters are treated according to legal provisions and with due process. However, courts can authorize “preventive detention” practices, by which a person who was convicted of certain violent crimes can be detained after serving their sentence in full if they are deemed to pose a danger to the public.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Attacks on refugee housing were less prominent in 2017 than in the two preceding years, which each saw around 1,000 such attacks. However, 93 attacks occurred in the first quarter of 2017.
Political crime increased in 2017, with the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) recording about 3,660 criminal acts that were related to the 2017 election campaign period, including 50 cases of assault. Anti-Semitic violence and hate crime also increased in the first half of 2017, according to government figures. Anti-Semitic protests took place toward the end of the year, prompting a denunciation by Merkel.
The threat posed by terrorist groups to national and regional security remained a major concern in 2017, and contributed to social and political tensions. However, the deadly terrorist strikes that took place in 2016—including an attack in which a militant extremist drove a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people—were not repeated.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
The constitution and other laws guarantee equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. However, a number of obstacles stand in the way of equal treatment of all segments of the population. Rhetoric against refugees remained prominent in the German public sphere in 2017. The anti-immigration, anti-Islam group known as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), which developed into a large protest movement in 2014, remained active in 2017 and continued to be one of the most vocal opponents of asylum and migration. The AfD also used strong rhetoric against asylum seekers and migrants throughout its election campaign, and succeeded in making it a central issue of the election.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Freedom of movement is legally protected and generally respected, although the refugee crisis and security concerns related to activity by the Islamic State (IS) militant group have led to some restrictions on travel. In 2015, the government introduced legislation allowing the confiscation of identity documents from German citizens suspected of terrorism as a way to prevent them from traveling abroad, particularly to Iraq and Syria.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The rights to own property and engage in commercial activity are respected.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
The government generally does not restrict social freedoms. Women’s rights are protected under antidiscrimination laws. However, a considerable gender wage gap persists, with women earning approximately 22 percent less in gross wages than men. A law requiring large German companies to reserve at least 30 percent of seats on their non-executive boards for women came into effect in 2016, but affects a limited number of companies. Adoption and tax legislation passed in 2014 gave equal rights to same-sex couples in these areas. Germany introduced same-sex marriage in 2017, following a June vote in parliament that took many observers by surprise.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia are targeted for sex trafficking and forced labor. Asylum seekers, especially unaccompanied minors, are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score77 100 free