Germany 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 Germany has generally been stable since the mid-20th century, political tensions have grown following an influx of asylum seekers into the country, and the growing popularity of a right-wing populist party.
- In February, Thuringia state legislators from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) secured the installation of Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) as minister-president, sparking widespread criticism. Kemmerich resigned within days, and his predecessor, Bodo Ramelow of the Left, was reselected in March.
- In May, the Federal Constitutional Court (BVerfG) ruled that provisions of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) Act were unconstitutional, in part because they impinged on the privacy of journalistic sources. The federal cabinet agreed on proposed revisions to the BND Act in December, though Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized the proposal for offering insufficient protections for journalists.
- In June, payment processing firm Wirecard filed for bankruptcy after its auditor refused to back financial statements over evidence of fraud. Wirecard’s collapse prompted a parliamentary inquiry, which was still ongoing at year’s end, as well as a rebuke of German regulators by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) via a November report.
- While the German government instituted public-assembly restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BVerfG upheld those rights for protesters who followed social-distancing requirements in April. Major protests against COVID-19 measures were held as the year progressed, with some turning violent. The World Health Organization counted 1.71 million cases and 33,071 deaths at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Germany’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen by the Federal Convention, a body formed jointly by the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) and state representatives. The president can serve up to two five-year terms. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was elected president in early 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 won a fourth term as chancellor following free and fair Bundestag elections in 2017. After negotiations of an unprecedented length, she formed a coalition government in 2018 between her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left SPD. The current term is expected to be her last term in office.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The parliament includes a lower house, the Bundestag, as well as an upper house, the 69-seat Bundesrat (Federal Council), which represents the country’s 16 federal states. 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 of 598. The 2017 elections saw 709 lower-house representatives elected. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors deemed the elections transparent and free from manipulation.
The CDU–CSU won 246 seats, while its coalition partner in the last government, the SPD, took 153 seats. Both parties posted their worst results since 1949. 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 (DDR). The FDP won 80 seats. The far-left party the Left, widely viewed as a successor to the East German communists, took 69. The Greens won 67.
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. In February 2020, members of Thuringia’s state legislature selected Thomas Kemmerich of the FDP to replace Bodo Ramelow of the Left as minister-president; Kemmerich received support from the CDU and the AfD, which secured nearly 24 percent of the vote in the October 2019 state election. Kemmerich’s installation was met with widespread criticism. Chancellor Merkel called for a reversal of the decision. Kemmerich resigned days after his installation, and an Ramelow-led Left–SPD–Green coalition was formed in March 2020. New elections are due in Thuringia in 2021.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Germany’s electoral laws and framework are fair and impartial. A failure to reform the problem of so-called overhang seats led to an inflated number 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 number 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 have previously been deemed unconstitutional for allowing a party more seats than it is formally allotted. With 709 lower-house 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?||4.004 4.004|
While the CDU–CSU and the SPD have historically dominated German politics, other parties have increased their support in recent years. Parties do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation. 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. The constitution makes it possible to ban political parties, although a party must be judged to pose a threat to democracy for a ban to be legal, and no party has been successfully banned since 1956. In 2017, the Federal Constitutional Court (BVerfG) found the extreme-right National Democratic Party to be unconstitutional, but ruled that it did not pose a great enough threat to merit a ban.
Support for the AfD has risen in recent years, as the party has moved further to the right of the political spectrum. The AfD held seats in the Bundestag and all state parliaments in 2020. While its popularity has shaken the German political system, most parties oppose the AfD and eschew coalitions that include it.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
While German government is very much consensus oriented, opposition parties have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections. Chancellor Merkel has presided over coalitions of several configurations during her time in office.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The 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 politically underrepresented. Women hold only 31.5 percent of Bundestag seats as of December 2020, the lowest number since 1998. Some 8 percent of Bundestag members are from immigrant backgrounds, having at least one parent who was born without German citizenship.
Naturalization rates are low, leading to large numbers of long-term residents who cannot vote in federal elections. Nearly eight million foreign-born residents were unable to vote in the 2017 federal elections, due in part to restrictive citizenship and voting laws.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Democratically elected representatives decide and implement policy without undue interference.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
While Germany generally maintains strong and effective corruption safeguards, the regulatory framework on lobbying members of parliament has been considered insufficient. For example, there is no central lobbying register in Germany. The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption regularly criticizes Germany for its opaque party-financing regime and for a lack of lobbying regulations.
In June 2020, German media reported that CDU parliamentarian Philipp Amthor used his legislative post to lobby the federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy on behalf of US technology firm Augustus Intelligence, and received a board seat and stock options for his efforts. Transparency International’s German office criticized the revelation, warning that Amthor’s behavior may have violated the criminal code. Amthor remained in the Bundestag, but resigned from the firm’s board and surrendered his stock options.
The June 2020 collapse of payment processing firm Wirecard, meanwhile, brought scrutiny on the German financial regulatory system. Wirecard filed for bankruptcy after its accounting firm refused to sign off on financial statements over evidence of fraud. Its chief executive, Markus Braun, was arrested in June and again in July over fraud and embezzlement charges, and remained in pretrial custody at year’s end. In November, the ESMA rebuked the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority—which had filed criminal complaints against journalists for reporting on irregularities at Wirecard—over a lack of independence from the government, a failure of internal controls, and other deficiencies. A parliamentary inquiry into the collapse was ongoing at year’s end.
Germany is obligated to enhance legal protections for whistleblowers under a European Union (EU) directive issued in 2019. In November 2020, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht announced a bill meant to ensure compliance, though the draft was not published by year’s end.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. In 2018, the government introduced question time, in which the chancellor answers questions from the parliament three times per year. However, transparency is limited by an overburdened bureaucracy and inconsistent state-level standards.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. Hate speech, such as racist agitation or antisemitism, is punishable by law. It is also illegal to advocate for Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler.
Journalists face harassment and abuse, especially via social media, as well as physical attacks when reporting on right-wing demonstrations. Such attacks were common in 2020, especially against journalists reporting on Querdenken (Lateral Thinking) demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions.
The privacy of communications between journalists and their sources have been affected by provisions of the BND Act. In May 2020, the BVerfG ruled BND Act’s surveillance provisions unconstitutional and mandated its revision. A revised bill was approved by the cabinet in December, but was criticized by RSF, which warned that it offered insufficient protections for journalists. The revision remained under consideration at year’s end.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
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.
Antisemitism in Germany is seen to be on the rise. In October 2020, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution warned of increasing verbal and physical attacks against Jewish individuals and organizations. In December, an assailant who killed two people in an assault a synagogue in the city of Halle in 2019 received a life sentence.
Islamophobia also remains a concern. German police recorded 632 politically motivated attacks against Muslim individuals and institutions in the first three quarters of 2020.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected, though legal prohibitions on extremist speech are enforceable in school and university settings. Debates about freedom of expression on campuses have continued in recent years. In February 2020, a survey commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers found that nearly a third of university educators felt constrained by institutional guidelines.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Private discussion and internet access are generally unrestricted, but recent developments have prompted concern about government surveillance of private communications. In 2017, the Bundestag passed a law allowing police to use spyware to conduct surveillance of encrypted online messaging services like WhatsApp when conducting criminal investigations. In October 2020, the federal cabinet opened discussions on a proposal to give intelligence agencies the ability to access such messages.
In 2018, the controversial Network Enforcement Act came into full effect. The law compels social media companies to delete content 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. According to RSF, social media companies have subsequently removed thousands of posts that should not be considered hate speech.
Watchdogs continue to express concern about a controversial 2015 data-retention law that requires telecommunications companies to store users’ telephone and internet data for 10 weeks. Critics view the law as a threat to general privacy and to whistleblowers, who could be punished under a section detailing illegal data handling. After the law was suspended and found to be incompatible with EU law by several German courts, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is expected to consider the issue. A November 2020 Bundestag report warned that the ECJ is unlikely to sustain the law, based on its rulings on data-retention legislation in other EU member states. The ECJ case was still pending at year’s end.
In recent surveys, a majority of Germans said they are careful when publicly stating their opinion, especially on migration, for fear of repercussions.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the constitution and is generally respected in practice, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing democratic order.
Assembly rights were restricted under COVID-19-related measures, but an April 2020 BVerfG ruling upheld rights for protesters who abided by social-distancing requirements. Several large demonstrations against COVID-19 measures—some of which turned violent—were held in 2020. In late August, for example, 38,000 protesters rallied in Berlin, most of them peacefully. However, several hundred demonstrators belonging to the far-right Realm Citizens group then tried to breach the Reichstag building before they were repelled by police. In early November, 20,000 protesters assembled in Leipzig under the Querdenken banner. Far-right participants reportedly clashed with police during those demonstrations, while the Union of German Journalists counted at least 32 attacks on the press during the incident.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Germany has a vibrant sphere of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and associations, which operate freely. However, in 2019, several NGOs lost their tax-exempt status after the Federal Financial Court ruled that they took part in political partisanship. In December 2020, the parliament passed a revised tax law that explicitly allowed more NGOs operating in areas including climate change and LGBT+ issues to claim tax-exempt status.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
The rule of law prevails in Germany. Civil and criminal matters are treated according to legal provisions and with due process. However, under “preventive detention” practices, those convicted of certain violent crimes can be detained after serving their full sentence if they are deemed to pose a danger to the public. In 2019, the ECJ ruled that German prosecutors were not allowed to issue European arrest warrants because of their dependence on state-level justice ministers. In November 2020, the Thuringia justice minister offered a draft proposal on enhancing prosecutorial independence to the Bundesrat.
In recent years, several state governments adopted laws that increased the surveillance powers of law enforcement. These laws have been criticized for enabling police to take preemptive action if they believe there is an “impending danger,” a vaguely defined term could allow for abuses according to critics. The Berlin state government introduced a draft reform package in June 2020, which was still under consideration at year’s end. Modest reforms were introduced in Bremen in November.
The professionalism of law-enforcement officers has come under question after the 2018 discovery of a neo-Nazi network within the Frankfurt police. Since then, police in several cities and states have been accused of espousing extremist and discriminatory sentiments. In June 2020, for example, 25 Berlin officials were discovered to have participated in a far-right chat network. Some 30 North Rhine–Westphalia officers, meanwhile, were suspended for participating in a similar group in September. Despite earlier reluctance, the federal Ministry of the Interior agreed to launch a study in October, though the Left and the FDP criticized the move as insufficient.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Politically motivated crimes against public officials and politicians have increased in recent years. The political establishment was notably shaken by the 2019 murder of Hesse politician Walter Lübcke at the hands of a far-right extremist. In February 2020, the Federal Criminal Police Office reported that 1,451 politically motivated attacks took place in 2019, compared to 1,256 in 2018. Politically motivated attacks were also reported in 2020. In January, bullet holes were found in the office of SPD parliamentarian Karamba Diaby, who also received a death threat. In October, an arsonist targeted the Robert Koch Institute, the public disease-control agency, in what police consider a politically motivated attack.
Several mass-casualty incidents were reported in 2020. In late February, a German who espoused far-right views killed nine people when attacking two shisha bars in the western city of Hanau. Chancellor Merkel later reported that the assailant, who died by suicide, was likely motivated by racist tendencies. In August, an individual suspected of Islamist tendencies attacked several motorists on a Berlin highway, injuring six. In December, five people in the city of Trier were killed by an individual driving into a pedestrian zone, though no political motive was immediately identified.
Attacks on refugees and refugee housing continued to decline from a peak of 3,500 in 2016. In 2019, nearly 1,750 such attacks were reported.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
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. Race-based discrimination is commonplace. Women, meanwhile, face a gender-based pay gap, while men are likelier to hold full-time employment. In July 2020, the federal cabinet adopted Germany’s first gender-equality strategy, focusing on pay, political representation, and other issues.
In 2018, restrictive new asylum and migration policies were passed, which include building camps along Germany’s international borders to hold asylum seekers and deporting any asylum seeker who had previously applied for asylum in another EU country. The implementation of these policies thus far has been slow.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
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 to prevent them from traveling abroad, particularly to Iraq and Syria.
Nationwide movement restrictions were not instituted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the states of Bavaria and Saarland did institute a lockdown in March 2020. Several states required visitors to present negative COVID-19 tests during the school vacation period in October. Bavaria also instituted a nighttime curfew in December 2020, as coronavirus cases increased.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
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?||4.004 4.004|
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 20 percent less in gross wages than men according to 2019 statistics. A law requiring large German companies to reserve at least 30 percent of nonexecutive-board seats for women took effect in 2016, but this law affects a limited number of companies. The federal government considered instituting a similar quota for executive boards in November 2020, though a decision was not reached at year’s end.
Adoption and tax legislation passed in 2014 gave equal rights to same-sex couples in these areas. The government legalized same-sex marriage in 2017.
In 2019, a Nazi-era law banning doctors from providing information on or advertising abortion services was reformed. Clinics and doctors may disclose abortion services, but a ban on providing further information was maintained. Human-rights campaigners criticized the reform as insufficient.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
According to the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia are targeted for sex trafficking and forced labor. Ethnic Roma are notably vulnerable to sex trafficking and to other forms of sex work.
Employees of meat producer Tönnies, many of whom are Bulgarian, North Macedonian, Polish, and Romanian, face poor working and living conditions. Tönnies workers also risked COVID-19 infection; by June 2020, over 1,000 workers at a meat-processing plant in the city of Rheda-Wiedenbrück had tested positive.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score79 100 free