Freedom in the World
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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was defeated in a number of state parliamentary elections held throughout 2011. In Baden-Württemberg, a new Green Party-led coalition came to power, representing the first time a Green Party member has held the presidency of a state’s parliament. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the extreme right National Democratic Party was re-elected to the state parliament, creating considerable political controversy. Meanwhile, the trial of John Demjanjuk ended in May with a conviction of accessory to murder in 28,060 counts in Holocaust-related war crimes.
Modern Germany emerged in 1871, when the patchwork of German states united under Prussian leadership following the Franco-Prussian war. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the German Empire was replaced in 1919 by the Weimar Republic, which gave way in 1933 to Nazism and led to World War II. Following its defeat 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 nearly two decades of massive subsidies, the federal states of former East Germany remain considerably poorer than the rest of the country. The economic situation has contributed to greater support for extremist political groups in the east.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a coalition of his center-right Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the socially liberal, market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) ruled Germany for 16 years. In 1998, Germans elected the so-called “red-green coalition,” consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, with the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder as chancellor. The red-green coalition won a narrow victory in the 2002 election, despite sluggish economic growth in its first term.
In 2005, Schröder engineered a no-confidence vote against himself to trigger national elections. Neither the red-green coalition nor the CDU/CSU-FDP opposition was able to garner an outright majority. After unusually protracted coalition negotiations, the CDU/CSU and the SPD were obliged to form a “grand coalition,” and the CDU’s Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor. Tensions between the two parties of the grand coalition grew during the second half of its term, with each party trying to distinguish itself.
The political scene in 2009 was dominated by the federal parliamentary election. The CDU/CSU won 239 seats, while the FDP took 93 seats. The SPD received its worst result in a federal election since World War II, capturing only 146 seats. Meanwhile, the Left and the Greens both made large gains, receiving the highest share of votes in their histories; however, they could not offset the SPD’s losses. As a result, the alliance of the CDU/CSU and FDP received an outright majority of seats and formed a new center-right government, ensuring Angela Merkel a second term as chancellor.
In November 2009, the controversial trial of John Demjanjuk—a Ukrainian-born former U.S. citizen and alleged World War II Nazi concentration camp guard—began in Munich. Demjanjuk, the lowest-ranking official to go on trial for Holocaust-related crimes, was charged with facilitating the murder of thousands of Jews at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. In May 2011, Demjanjuk, then 91, was convicted of accessory to murder in 28,060 counts at the Sobibor camp, and was sentenced to five years in jail. However, he was released pending appeal and was living in a German nursing home at year’s end.
In May 2010, state parliamentary elections were held in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and were largely seen as a test of the new federal government’s performance. Similar to its federal counterpart, the incumbent government was a CDU-FDP coalition, with the main opposition coming from the SPD. Both major parties, the CDU and the SPD, did poorly, while both the Greens and the Left fared well, the latter winning seats for the first time. The overall result of the election was a hung parliament with the CDU and SPD each capturing 67 out of 181 available seats. After various coalition options were exhausted, the SPD and the Greens ultimately formed a minority coalition. Some political analysts interpreted the outcome of the election as indicating potential trouble for Merkel's government during the next federal elections.
President Horst Köhler of the CDU resigned in May 2010 after criticism over comments he made that insinuated that military intervention abroad could be justified by economic interests. One month later, CDU candidate Christian Wulff was elected to replace Köhler, but only after three election rounds, which demonstrated dissidence in Merkel’s majority coalition.
Marked by ongoing antinuclear sentiment reignited by the nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan, and the eurozone debt crisis, the 2011 state parliamentary elections, which were held in seven states throughout the year, saw a series of electoral defeats for Merkel’s CDU. Except in Rhineland-Palatinate and Berlin, the conservative party lost votes in each state and even lost political majorities in Baden-Württemberg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In Baden-Württemberg, a region ruled by the CDU since 1953, a new coalition came to power led by the Green party, which won 24.2 percent of the vote, and the SPD, which received 23.1 percent. It marked the first time in German political history that a member of the Green Party would preside over a state parliament; the Greens now hold seats in each of the 16 state parliaments. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern elections, the SPD gained 5 seats for a total of 28, while the CDU received 18 seats. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), CDU allies in the federal government, lost all of their previously held seven seats. The extreme right National Democratic Party (NDP) was re-elected with 6 percent of the vote. Other noted results included the election of the Pirate Party, which campaigned for issues including information privacy and internet freedom. The Pirate Party won 15 seats in the Berlin state parliament—the first time it captured seats in a state legislature in Germany.
Germany is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the 622-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. The country’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen jointly by the 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, policing, taxation, and spending. The chancellor, the head of government, is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a four-year legislative session, which can be cut short only if the Bundestag chooses a replacement in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence.
For historical reasons, political pluralism is somewhat constrained. Under electoral laws 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 be represented in parliament. The constitutional court outlawed the Socialist Reich Party (a successor to the Nazi Party) in 1952 and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956 on the grounds that their goals disregarded the principles of the constitution. However, the former ruling party of communist East Germany—the Socialist Unity Party, renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism—participated in state governments after reunification. It then merged with Laboor and Social Justice˗The Electorate Alternative, a party of former left-wing SPD members, to form the new Left Party ahead of the 2005 elections. The main extreme right party, the NDP, is hostile to immigration and the EU, and has been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
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 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. However, hate speech is punishable if publicly pronounced against specific segments of the population and in a manner that incites hatred, such as racist agitation and antisemitism. It is also illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler. There are no restrictions on access to the internet.
Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, Germany has taken a strong stance against the Church of Scientology, which it deems an organization pursuing commercial interests rather than a religion. A number of federal states have also denied the Jehovah's Witnesses the official “public law corporation” status, which has been granted to 180 other religious groups in the country. Eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing the headscarf, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for all civil servants. Economic uncertainties in the aftermath of the global recession have worsened xenophobic tendencies toward immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, as evidenced by the re-election of the extreme right NDP party in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Academic freedom is generally respected.
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. Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations operate without hindrance. Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are free to organize.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails. Prison conditions are adequate, though the Council of Europe has criticized elements in the practice of preventive detention.
Germany was accused by international human rights organizations in 2011 of repatriating asylum seekers to countries where their safety could be threatened, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Women’s rights are well protected under antidiscrimination laws. However, gender wage gaps persisted in 2011, with women’s wages and salaries approximately 23 percent less than men’s wages for the same work. Women held 6 of the 16 federal cabinet positions and 33 percent of the seats in parliament. Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected.