Freedom in the World
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Germany's government, led by the Social Democratic Party with the Green Party as a junior partner, remained unpopular in 2004, owing mainly to a poor economy. The government did poorly in regional elections, several of which saw extreme left- and right-wing parties do better than expected. However, they did not pose any threat to stable governance at either the state or the federal level.
The modern German state emerged in 1871 out of the fragmented Germanic states that existed until then. Defeated in World War I, and again more devastatingly in World War II, Germany was divided into two states - the capitalist and democratic Federal Republic in the west and the Communist German Democratic Republic in the east - during the ensuing Cold War. In 1989, the Berlin Wall keeping East Berliners from fleeing west was opened, and in 1990, East Germany was absorbed into the Federal Republic. Despite more than a decade of massive subsidies, eastern Germany remains considerably poorer than the rest of the country, with higher levels of unemployment. This economic situation is seen to have contributed to higher levels of support for political groups on the far right and far left in the former East.
The current government, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, was first elected in 1998, with the SPD's Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor. The government's first term was marked by slow economic growth (just 0.6 percent and 0.2 percent in 2001 and 2002), and the SPD's poll ratings languished late in 2002. However, Schroeder's vocal opposition to the war in Iraq played well with voters, and the coalition parties bested the opposition alliance of the Christian Democratic Party and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in the September 2002 legislative elections.
Poll ratings sank quickly again after the election, and the SPD has struggled since. The primary reason may be dissatisfaction with the economy, which shrank slightly in 2003. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, at around 10 percent. Schroeder began to tackle this issue in earnest with labor-market reforms in 2002. His proposals have included making it easier for firms to fire workers, encouraging the creation of part-time and lower-wage "mini-jobs," and cutting benefits to the unemployed if they prove unwilling to move to take a job or to take an available job.
However, piecemeal reforms have both irritated labor unions, a key component of the SPD's electoral base, and failed to ignite the economy quickly enough for voters (although 2004 was forecast to be an improvement on 2003, with positive, if modest, growth.) While the SPD was trounced in several state elections in September 2004, its only comfort was that its main rival, the CDU/CSU, failed to do significantly better. The CDU/CSU largely co-operated with the government on the reforms, and thus seemed to be at least partly responsible for them in the eyes of voters.
The state elections received attention for the success of extreme parties. In Saxony, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) took 9 percent of the vote, almost as much as the SPD. Another far-right wing party, the German People's Union (DVU), did well in Brandenburg, with 6 percent. The ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) also did well. Both elections took place in the former East Germany, where unemployment - and hence voter disaffection - is higher. However, these parties pose no serious threat to German democracy or governability. Though the PDS remains committed to state ownership and strongly socialist policies, it has been included in state government before and has behaved responsibly. The two far-right parties are shunned by the vast majority of the population and are not candidates for inclusion in government coalitions, even at the state level.
Germany remains in conflict with some of its EU partners over its budget deficit. A condition of accepting the euro as its currency, which Germany did in 1999, is keeping the deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product. Germany has breached this ceiling in 2002 and 2003, was certain to do so again in 2004, and was on track to do so in 2005. Because it was Germany that insisted on the 3-percent rule when the euro was created, this has given rise to some animosity from Germany's fellow EU countries, particularly the Netherlands.
Germans can change their government democratically. The constitution provides for a lower house (Bundestag) elected by a 50-50 mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts, to be reelected at least every four years. The chancellor must control a majority in the Bundestag. The upper house, the Bundesrat, represents the states, and it must approve much key legislation, including economic bills. Its members are delegates from the individual state governments, and each state's delegation must vote as a block. The head of state is a largely ceremonial federal president, chosen by the parliament. Germany is strongly federal; state governments have considerable authority over areas such as education and policing, as well as substantial powers to tax and spend.
Political pluralism in Germany has been constrained by laws restricting the far left and far right. The Communist Party of Germany was banned in the Federal Republic in 1956. However, the former ruling East German Communist party, now the PDS, is a legal and democratic, if far-left, party that has participated in state governments. The two main far-right parties, the NDP and the DVU, are hostile to immigration and the EU and sometimes receive a small share of the vote, but they are routinely kept out of government. Moreover, the alteration of asylum laws has undercut basic support for such parties, which together won less than 3 percent of the vote in 2002 and no seats in parliament. Nazism is illegal, but the government's attempts to ban the NDP were hung up in court when it was revealed that many of those testifying against the party were government agents.
Germany's government is accountable through open debates in parliament that are covered widely covered in the media. The government is free of pervasive corruption and was ranked 15 out of 145 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is protected in the Basic Law (the constitution), and the media are largely free and independent. However, it remains illegal to advocate Nazism or deny the Holocaust. Germany authorities have sought to prosecute Internet users outside Germany posting Nazi propaganda aimed at Germany, although this will be technically impossible to prosecute. The Constitutional Court ruled in March 2003 that surveillance of journalists' phone calls could be deemed legal in "serious" cases (on a case-by-case basis) by judges. The lack of a definition of "serious" is a cause for concern to reporters, who fear that the vagueness of the word invites abuse.
Freedom of belief is protected under law. Religions that fulfill certain requirements have the status of a "corporation under public law," and the government collects taxes from church members on the churches' behalf, for a fee. However, Germany has taken a strong stance against the Church of Scientology, which it deems an economic organization rather than a religion. Major parties deny membership to Scientologists, and the group has been under surveillance by government intelligence agencies. The Jehovah's Witnesses were denied public law corporation status in 1997 for failing to demonstrate "indispensable loyalty" to the democratic state, but this ruling was overturned on church-state separation grounds by the high court in 2000. However, as of November 2004, the case was still under review by the courts, which have expressed concern that the Jehovah's Witnesses' child-rearing practices do not conform to international human rights law. Two states, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, have passed laws prohibiting Muslim female teachers from wearing headscarves on duty. Academic freedom is respected.
Civic groups and NGOs may operate without hindrance, and the right of peaceful assembly is not infringed, except in the case of outlawed groups such as those advocating Nazism or opposing Germany's democratic order. Trade unions, farmers' groups, and business confederations are free to organize, and they have traditionally played a strong role in Germany's consensus-based policy-making system. However, unions have weakened in recent years.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails. The Federal Constitutional Court vets the compatibility of laws with the Basic Law. In addition to having its own provisions, Germany is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. Prison conditions are adequate. Anti-immigrant sentiment have led to attacks on members of ethnic minorities.
Women's rights are strongly protected, with generous maternity policies and anti-discrimination laws, though the latter do not prevent some wage discrimination. There are six women in the fourteen-member federal cabinet. Limited gay partnership rights are permitted.