Germany | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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In September 2005 parliamentary elections, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), representing the center-right opposition, won the most seats, defeating Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) by a small margin. Unable to form a government with its preferred junior partner, the CDU/CSU formed a grand coalition with the SPD.
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.

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 in late 2002. However, Schroeder's vocal opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq appealed to voters, and the coalition parties bested the opposition alliance of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in the September 2002 legislative elections.

Poll ratings sank quickly again after the election, and the SPD lagged far behind the CDU/CSU in polls for most of Schroeder's second term. The primary reason was 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 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 take an available job or to move to take a job.

Nonetheless, the piecemeal reforms both irritated labor unions, a key component of the SPD's electoral base, and failed to ignite the economy quickly enough for voters. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by just 1.6 percent in 2004 and was forecast to grow weakly in 2005 as well. Schroeder had promised in 1998 to cut unemployment to below 3.5 million, but at the end of two terms, just under 5 million were unemployed. The SPD's defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia, a heartland for the party, in May 2005 led the chancellor to call for a vote of confidence, which he planned to lose in order to bring elections forward by a year. He duly lost the vote, but Germany's constitution makes it difficult to call early elections. Only after the Constitutional Court approved the move were parliamentary elections set for September 18.

The CDU/CSU chose Angela Merkel, its parliamentary leader, as its candidate for chancellor, and the alliance led throughout the campaign. Its preferred coalition partner was the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP), a socially liberal party that favors free markets. The CDU/CSU's campaign was seen as lackluster and error-prone, however; Merkel named a flat-tax advocate as her finance minister designate, a move that worried many voters even though a flat tax was not part of the party's official platform. As a result, the CDU/CSU gradually lost support over the course of the campaign and in the end won just 225 seats to the SPD's 222. Though the FDP did well, winning 61 seats (against 47 in the previous Bundestag), the CDU/ CSU and FDP did not have enough total seats to form a government. However, the SPD and Greens also fell short of a majority. (A newly formed Left Party, consisting of left-wing SPD rebels and the successor to East Germany's Communist party, took 54 seats in its first election.) The standoff led to protracted coalition negotiations, unusual for Germany. In the end, the only possible combination was a grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Merkel became Germany's first female chancellor.

In 2005, Germany's government agreed with its European Union (EU) partners to open negotiations with Turkey on EU membership, despite some German concerns about accepting Turkey. Merkel is on record as opposing Turkish membership, but the EU's official negotiating position is that negotiation does not guarantee Turkey's admission.

Germany remains in conflict with some EU partners over its budget deficit. Maintaining a deficit below 3 percent of GDP was a condition of Germany's accepting the euro as its currency, which it did in 1999. Germany breached this deficit ceiling in 2002, 2003, and 2004 and was on track to do so again in 2005. Because it was Germany that insisted on the 3 percent rule when the euro was created, this situation has given rise to some animosity from Germany's fellow EU countries, particularly the Netherlands.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Germany can change their government demo-cratically. The constitution provides for a lower house-the Bundestag, or parliament-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 Bundesrat, or Federal Council, represents the states and approves 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 jointly by the Bundestag and a group of state representatives. 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. The chancellor is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a four-year legislative session. He or she can only be deposed mid-term if the Bundestag chooses a replacement (in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence).

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, was a legal and democratic, if far-left, party that participated in state governments. It recently merged with former SPD members from the left wing of the party to form the new Left Party for the 2005 election.

The two main far-right parties-the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the German People's Union (DVU)-are hostile to immigration and the EU. Although they sometimes receive a small share of the vote-the NDP won 9 percent in a state election in Saxony in 2004-they are routinely kept out of government and pose little threat to democratic governance. Their support, like that of the Left Party, is greater in the former East Germany, where unemployment and economic conditions feed political frustration. However, the alteration of asylum laws has undercut basic support for the far-right parties, which once again won no seats in the 2005 federal election. (Parties must win at least 5 percent of the vote to be represented in the Bundestag, a provision designed to prevent the proliferation of parties and the instability that characterized Germany in the Weimar era between the world wars.) Nazism is illegal, but the government's attempts to ban the NDP were stalled 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, which are covered widely in the media. The government is free of pervasive corruption and was ranked 16 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is protected in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. However, it remains illegal to advocate Nazism or deny the Holocaust. German authorities have sought to prosecute internet users outside Germany posting Nazi propaganda aimed at Germany, although prosecution is technically impossible to implement. In March 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled 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 word's vagueness invites abuse. Germany is one of the few European countries without freedom of information legislation.

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 child-rearing practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses do not conform to international human rights law. The Jehovah's Witnesses do have tax-exempt status. Two states, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, have passed laws prohibiting Muslim female teachers from wearing headscarves (hijab) on duty. Academic freedom is respected.

Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations may operate without hindrance. The right of peaceful assembly is not infringed upon, 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 sentiments have led to attacks on members of ethnic minorities.

Women's rights are strongly protected, with generous maternity policies and antidiscrimination laws, though the latter do not prevent some wage discrimination. There are six women in the 14-member federal cabinet. Limited gay partnership rights are permitted.