Freedom in the World
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The “grand coalition” of the center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the center-left Social Democratic Party marked its first full year in power in 2006. The new government lost public support as planned reforms in health care and other areas made little progress. Chancellor Angela Merkel remained personally popular, however.
Modern Germany emerged in 1871 out of the fragmented Germanic states that had 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. The Berlin Wall, which had kept East Berliners from fleeing west, was opened in 1989, and East Germany was absorbed into the Federal Republic the following year. Despite more than a decade of massive subsidies, eastern Germany remains considerably poorer than the rest of the country, with higher levels of unemployment. The economic situation has contributed to higher levels of support for extremist political groups 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—gross domestic product (GDP) grew just 0.6 percent in 2001 and 0.2 percent in 2002—and the SPD’s opinion-poll ratings languished in late 2002. However, Schroeder drew voter support by vocally opposing U.S. preparations to invade Iraq , 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.
The government’s poll ratings sank quickly again after the elections, and the SPD lagged far behind the CDU/CSU in popularity for most of Schroeder’s second term. The primary reason was dissatisfaction with the economy, which shrank slightly in 2003. The unemployment rate remained stubbornly high, at around 10 percent. Schroeder began to tackle that 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 proved unwilling to take an available job or to move to take a job.
The reforms both irritated labor unions, a key component of the SPD’s electoral base, and failed to improve the economy quickly enough for voters. GDP grew by just 0.9 percent in 2005. Schroeder had promised in 1998 to reduce the number of unemployed workers to below 3.5 million, but at the end of two terms, just under 5 million were unemployed. The SPD’s May 2005 state electoral defeat in North Rhine–Westphalia, a heartland for the party, led the chancellor to call for a parliamentary vote of confidence, which he planned to lose in order to bring national 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 elections set for September 18, 2005.
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, while the SPD took 222. The FDP did well, winning 61 seats, up from 47, but the CDU/CSU and FDP did not have enough total seats to form a government. The SPD and Greens also fell short of a majority. (The newly formed Left Party, consisting of left-wing SPD rebels and the successor to East Germany’s Communist Party, took 54 seats.) The standoff led to protracted coalition negotiations, which are unusual in 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.
Merkel began her term with extremely high personal popularity ratings. However, over the course of 2006, the grand coalition proved slow to move on new legislation as the two constituent parties engaged in long negotiations over a wide variety of issues, the most important of which was health-care reform. The CDU/CSU proposed changing the funding system from payments linked to each worker’s income to a flat-rate premium. The SPD, however, insisted on keeping the link to pay. The compromise was to set up a mixed system, beginning only in 2009.
Concerns over the assimilation of Muslim immigrants were prominent in 2006. In May, a German politician of Turkish descent was badly beaten, allegedly by neo-Nazis. In August, two crude bombs, which failed to detonate, were found on German trains. One Lebanese man linked to the plot was arrested, and another was arrested and released. Two other suspects were held in Lebanon. In September, a Mozart opera, Idomeneo , was canceled because of security concerns over a controversial staging that featured the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, and the prophet Muhammad. The incident overshadowed a conference dedicated to the coexistence of Muslim immigrants, their German-born children, and ethnic Germans.
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 position is that negotiation does not guarantee Turkey’s admission. Germany will adopt the rotating six-month presidency of the EU at the beginning of 2007.
Germany is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, elected at least every four years through a 50-50 mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts, as well as an upper house, the Bundesrat or Federal Council, which represents the states and approves 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 country’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen jointly by the Bundestag and a group of state representatives. In Germany’s federal system, 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 in the middle of a 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 party of Communist East Germany, renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), was a legal and democratic far-left party that participated in state governments. It recently merged with former left-wing SPD members to form the new Left Party for the 2005 elections.
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, and 7.3 percent in Mecklenburg/Upper Pomerania in 2006—they are routinely kept out of government and pose little threat to democratic rule. Their strength, like that of the Left Party, is greater in the former East Germany, where unemployment and poor 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 elections. (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 as a neo-Nazi group 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 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 unsuccessfully to prosecute internet users outside Germany who post Nazi propaganda aimed at Germany. In March 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that surveillance of journalists’ telephone calls could be deemed legal by judges in “serious” cases. The lack of a definition of “serious” is a cause for concern among reporters, who fear that the word’s vagueness invites abuse. Germany is one of the only 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. The four biggest political 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 in 2000. The state of Berlin continued to disallow public-law corporation status for the Witnesses until 2006, when court rulings forced it to do so. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizations also have tax-exempt status. Eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing headscarves ( hijab ) on duty, amid a climate becoming slightly but perceptibly more hostile to Muslim immigrants and their German-born children. Academic freedom is generally respected.
Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations 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 the 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 legislation 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 (see above), though immigrants are less “ghettoized” than in some of Germany’s neighboring countries, such as France.
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 respected.