Freedom in the World
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Tensions increased between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) during the third year of their coalition government. The SPD changed its leadership amid declining political fortunes, and both parties began to prepare for the 2009 elections.
Modern Germany emerged in 1871, when the existing patchwork of German states unified under Prussian leadership. 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 greater support for extremist political groups in the east.
A coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party was elected in 1998, with the SPD’s Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor. The government’s first term was marked by slow economic growth, 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, 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. However, the reforms irritated labor unions, a key component of the SPD’s electoral base, and failed to improve the economy quickly enough for voters.
The SPD’s May 2005 state electoral defeat in North Rhine–Westphalia, a traditional party stronghold, 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, and after the Constitutional Court granted its approval, early elections were set for September.
The CDU/CSU, which chose Angela Merkel as its candidate for chancellor, mounted a lackluster campaign that eroded its substantial lead in the polls. In the end, the alliance won just 225 seats, while the SPD took 222. The CDU/CSU’s preferred coalition partner, the socially liberal, market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP), won 61 seats, up from 47. However, that was not enough to grant the prospective coalition a majority, and the incumbent coalition of the SPD and Greens also fell short. Both sides were unwilling to cooperate with the newly formed Left Party, a combination of left-wing SPD rebels and the successor to East Germany’s communist party that won 54 seats. After unusually protracted coalition negotiations, the CDU/CSU and the SPD were obliged to form a “grand coalition,” and Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor.
Merkel began her term with high personal popularity ratings. However, over the course of 2006 and 2007, 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. A modest health-care reform agreement was reached in 2006. In 2007, other coalition accords trimmed the payroll tax and made it easier for foreign engineers to work in Germany. An economic upswing removed the impetus for more aggressive legislative action.
Concerns over the assimilation of Muslim immigrants were prominent in 2006. A German politician of Turkish descent was badly beaten in May, allegedly by neo-Nazis. In August, two crude bombs, which failed to detonate, were found on German trains. A Mozart opera, Idomeneo, was canceled in September because of security concerns over a controversial staging that featured the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, and the prophet Muhammad.
In 2007, Germans engaged in a heated debate over plans to build a mosque in Cologne, and immigration laws were tightened as assimilation worries continued. One measure required spouses migrating to Germany to pass a German language test, drawing objections from the country’s large Turkish minority. In September of that year, an alleged terrorist plot to attack Frankfurt’s airport and a U.S. airbase was foiled. The fact that two of the suspected plotters were native German converts to Islam raised fears that the terrorist threat would be increasingly difficult to combat. Government ministers proposed strengthening antiterrorism laws. Some steps, including making it easier for the intelligence services and police to share information, were relatively uncontroversial. But a proposal for remote electronic eavesdropping proved more contentious.
Merkel enjoyed international prominence during 2007, which sustained her popularity at home. She hosted a Group of 8 summit, winning global-warming commitments, and held the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) for the first half of the year. However, tensions between the two parties of the grand coalition began to build later in the year, with each trying to distinguish itself as the government entered the second half of its term.
These tensions continued in 2008. The CDU fared poorly in January’s state elections in Hesse and North-Lower Saxony. In October, the CSU (the CDU’s partner, which operates only in Bavaria) had its worst state election result in 46 years, losing its majority. But the SPD was unable to capitalize on the CDU/CSU’s losses, and the biggest gainer of the year was the Left Party. In September the SPD, torn between its centrist and left wings, replaced its leader, Kurt Beck, with Franz Muentefering, a former vice-chancellor. The party named Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as its chancellor candidate for the 2009 elections. Despite a lackluster political year, Merkel was overwhelmingly reelected as party leader at the end of 2008.
Germany is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the 614-seat Bundestag (Federal Assembly), 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 (Federal Council), which represents the states and approves key legislation, including economic bills. Its 69 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 bythe Bundestag and a group of state representatives to serve up to two five-year terms. In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education and policing, as well as substantial powers to tax and spend. The chancellor, the head of government, 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 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 after reunification. It merged with former left-wing SPD members to form the new Left Party ahead of the 2005 elections and has since grown in prominence.
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–Western Pomerania in 2006—they are routinely kept out of government and pose little threat to democratic rule. Their strength is greater in the former East Germany, where unemployment and poor economic conditions feed political frustration. However, tightened asylum and immigration laws have undercut basic support for the far-right parties, which once again failed to win seats in the 2005 federal elections. (Parties must win at least 5 percent of the vote to be represented in the Bundestag.) Nazism is illegal, but the government’s attempts to ban the NDP as a neo-Nazi group were stalled in court in 2003 when it was revealed that many of those testifying against the party were government agents. The December 2008 stabbing of the police chief of Passau, who had vigorously pursued a neo-Nazi agenda, received national attention.
The government is held accountable for its performance through open debates in the parliament, which are covered widely in the media. Germany is free of pervasive corruption and was ranked 14 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. The authorities have sought unsuccessfully to prosecute internet users abroad 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 for “serious” is a cause for concern among reporters. Journalists have also been prosecuted for “divulging state secrets,” for example on the government’s antiterrorism efforts. Seventeen such cases were brought in 2007. In 2006, the parliament released a report concluding that the federal intelligence agency had been spying on journalists, and similar complaints from the press continue. Reporters are not the targets of investigations, but federal antiterrorism efforts that involve tapping journalists’ telephones undermine the confidence of sources. Nevertheless, the press remains lively, investigative, and professional.
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 members on the religious groups’ 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 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 resisted granting public-law corporation status to the Witnessesuntil 2006, when court rulings forced it to do so. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizations also have tax-exempt status. Several states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing headscarves (hijab) on duty, amid a climate of incrementally rising hostility toward Muslim immigrants and their German-born children. In late 2007, a court ruled that the state of Hesse’s strict ban on public servants wearing the hijab did not violate the state’s constitution. Other states have considered similar bans. Academic freedom is generally respected in Germany.
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 prominent role in Germany’s consensus-based policymaking 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, though the Council of Europe has criticized the practice of preliminary detention before formal arrest; people so detained may not contact a lawyer or family members.
Anti-immigrant sentiments have led to attacks on members of ethnic minorities, but immigrants in Germany are less “ghettoized” than in some neighboring countries, such as France. A 2000 reform made it easier for those born in Germany of foreign parents to obtain citizenship, though the process remains cumbersome.
While women’s rights are well protected, with generous maternity policies and antidiscrimination laws, the latter do not prevent some wage discrimination. There are 6 women in the 14-member federal cabinet. Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected.