Freedom in the World
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Germany, a member of the European Union (EU), is a representative democracy with a vibrant political culture and civil society. Political rights and civil liberties are largely assured both in law and practice. The political system is influenced by the country’s totalitarian past, with constitutional safeguards designed to prevent authoritarian rule. Although generally stable since the mid-20th century, politics are experiencing tensions following an influx of asylum seekers into the country and the growing popularity of a right-wing party, among other issues.
- The right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained ground in several state-level elections, taking advantage of a wave of discontent with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Europe’s immigration crisis.
- Attacks on refugee housing remained a major problem, and both refugees and religious minorities reported a significant number of threats as well as incidents of hate speech and violence.
- Several terrorist attacks took place during the year, the most serious one targeting a Berlin Christmas market in December and ending with 12 deaths and dozens of injuries.
In 2016, Germany’s public sphere continued to absorb the consequences of the record-breaking flow of asylum seekers into the country the previous year. Although the migration flow ebbed significantly, violence against refugees and their homes remained high. Religious minorities also reported high lebels of threats, hate speech, and even violence. Amid these tensions, support for the right-wing, populist, anti-immigration AfD grew in all five state-level elections that took place during the year.
A number of terrorist attacks shook Germany, including ones carried out in the name of or claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. The most severe attack targeted a Christmas market in Berlin and left 12 people dead and dozens injured. Following two attacks in July, the Bundestag passed amendments to existing antiterrorism legislation to improve the German intelligence service’s ability to cooperate and share information with foreign counterparts.
In March, German comedian Jan Böhmermann became the center of a freedom of expression controversy after performing a satirical poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Using an obscure law that enables foreign heads of state to prosecute insult in German courts with authorization from the German government, Erdoğan took steps to launch a criminal case against Böhmermann. Merkel granted authorization for use of the law, and the case led to significant international outcry. Prosecutors dropped it in October, citing insufficient evidence, and authorities announced plans to review the legislation.
The German constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the Bundestag (Federal Assembly), as well as an upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which represents the country’s 16 federal states. The Bundestag is elected at least every four years through a mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts, which can lead the number of seats to vary from the minimum 598. Bundesrat members are appointed by state governments. Germany’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. The chancellor—the head of government—is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a legislative session. The chancellor’s term can be cut short only if the Bundestag chooses a replacement in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence. In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education, policing, taxation, and spending.
Joachim Gauck was elected president in 2012. In the 2013 federal elections, a total of 631 representatives were elected to the Bundestag. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won 311 seats—the best showing for the Christian Democrats since 1990, when Germany reunified. The CDU’s previous coalition partner, the pro–free market Free Democratic Party (FDP), failed to meet the 5 percent threshold to qualify for seats for the first time since 1949. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) took 193 seats, and the Greens won 63. The far-left party the Left, which is widely viewed as a successor to the East German communists, took 64 seats. The AfD failed to qualify for seats. The CDU reached an agreement with the SPD to form a so-called grand coalition government, as they had done during Merkel’s first term (2005–09).
In 2016, state-level elections took place in five German states. The AfD made considerable gains in these elections, winning 24 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt and 21 percent in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
The dominant political parties have traditionally been the SPD and the CDU-CSU. Parties do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation, although under electoral laws that, for historical reasons, are 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 gain representation in the parliament.
The influence of Germany’s extreme-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD)—an anti-immigration, anti-EU party that has been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich—remains very limited. All 16 German states petitioned the Federal Constitutional Court in 2013 to ban the NPD, calling it a neo-Nazi antidemocratic group. Previous attempts to outlaw the party have failed. The movement against the NPD continued in 2016, but with no significant results.
Support for the AfD has grown in recent years. In addition to making gains in the 2016 state elections, the party won seven seats in the European Parliament elections in 2014. Several AfD members and deputies are linked to right-wing extremist groups. In 2016, Baden-Württemberg state legislator Wolfgang Gedeon left the party after publicly glorifying Holocaust deniers as dissidents.
The 2013 federal elections resulted in the first black members of the Bundestag, with one each from the CDU and the SPD. The CDU also saw its first Muslim deputy elected to the Bundestag. Overall, the number of Bundestag members from immigrant backgrounds rose from 21 to 34.
Elected representatives decide and implement policy without undue interference.
Germany is free from pervasive corruption and was ranked 10 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, watchdogs continue to express concerns about a controversial 2015 data retention law, which they view as a threat not just to general privacy but also to whistleblowers, who could be punished under a section detailing illegal data handling. Whistleblowers receive few legal protections in Germany.
The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. However, Transparency International and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticize Germany for having loose regulations on lobbying and lacking a centralized lobbying register, which stifle transparency in this area.
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. Hate speech, such as racist agitation or anti-Semitism, is punishable by law. It is also illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler. In March 2016, Böhmermann became the center of a freedom of expression scandal after reciting a satirical poem on television about Erdoğan. Following the broadcast, Erdoğan took steps toward prosecuting Böhmermann for insult, using a section of the German criminal code that allows a foreign head of state to undertake such proceedings if authorized to do so by the German government. Merkel faced widespread criticism by domestic and international media watchdogs as well as the public for granting authorization. Prosecutors ceased investigations in October, citing insufficient evidence, and a review of the relevant section of the criminal code was ongoing at year’s end.
Internet access is generally unrestricted. In 2013, documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA, in collaboration with Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), had secretly collected extensive data on communications in Germany. In 2014, a parliamentary inquiry was launched into the nature of cooperation between the NSA and BND. The inquiry was ongoing in 2016. In October, the Bundestag passed a bill to reform the BND. Although the legislation strengthened government monitoring of and control over the BND, it also legalized some of the agency’s controversial intelligence-gathering practices and expanded its power to monitor foreign entities. A number of minority parties and NGOs strongly opposed the bill and announced plans to challenge it.
Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing headscarves, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for civil servants.
Violence against religious minorities remained a prominent issue throughout the year. According to the Interior Ministry, there were 91 attacks on mosques in 2016, the most prominent of them a bomb attack in Dresden in September. In April, a Sikh temple in Essen fell victim to a bomb attack. Police arrested a group of German-born youths with connections to Islamist extremists in subsequent investigations; the case had not concluded at year’s end.
Academic freedom is respected, and private discussion is generally unrestricted. A debate surrounding censorship of online discussion continued in 2016, with several court cases leading to convictions for incitement of hatred on digital platforms.
The right to peaceful assembly is respected in practice, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing democratic order. Civic groups and NGOs operate without hindrance.
Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are generally free to organize. In July, a Federal Court ruled that a 2012 strike by Frankfurt Airport air traffic controllers was unlawful, ordering their union to pay damages.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails. Prison conditions are adequate, though the Council of Europe has criticized some of Germany’s preventive detention practices.
The threat posed by terrorist groups to national and regional security remained a major concern in 2016 and contributed to social and political tensions. Two German terrorist attacks in July—a suicide bombing targeting visitors to a festival in Ansbach and an axe attack on a passenger train in Würzburg, were attributed to registered refugees associated with IS. In both cases, the perpetrators were killed and several bystanders injured. In December, Germany witnessed its worst terrorist incident in decades when a militant extremist drove a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring dozens. The suspect, Tunisian citizen Anis Amri, was killed a few days later by police in Italy. The incident stirred up a renewed debate on Germany’s security and migration policies. After the July attacks, legislators amended existing antiterrorism laws to improve the German domestic intelligence service’s ability to cooperate and share information with foreign counterparts.
The constitution and other laws guarantee equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. However, a number of obstacles stand in the way of equal treatment of all segments of the population. Following the record number of asylum seekers who entered Germany in 2015, significantly lower numbers were recorded in 2016—280,000, compared with 890,000 the previous year. Although the German government retains one of the most open policies toward asylum, the problem of violence against refugees persisted in 2016. There were 970 attacks on refugee housing during the year, most of them attributed to right-wing extremists. Separately, federal police recorded 11 attempted murders by right-wing extremists through October. In October, a police officer in Bavaria was killed in a shootout with a member of a so-called “Reichsbürger” group, a militant collective that refuses to accept the authority of the German state.
Rhetoric against refugees remained prominent in German public rhetoric. The anti-immigration, anti-Islam group known as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), which developed into a large protest movement in 2014, remained active in 2016 and continued to be one of the most vocal opponents of asylum and migration. In October, the group again made headlines when members disturbed celebrations of Germany’s reunification day in Dresden, displaying signs and using language that mocked the country’s political establishment, including Chancellor Merkel.
Freedom of movement is legally protected and generally respected, although the refugee crisis and security concerns related to IS have led to some restrictions on travel. In 2015, the government introduced legislation allowing the confiscation of identity documents from German citizens suspected of terrorism as a way to prevent them from traveling abroad, particularly to Iraq and Syria. The rights to own property and engage in commercial activity are respected.
Women’s rights are protected under antidiscrimination laws. However, a considerable gender wage gap persists, with women earning approximately 22 percent less in gross wages than men. A law requiring large German companies to reserve at least 30 percent of seats on their non-executive boards for women came into effect in 2016, but only affects a very limited number of companies. Following the 2013 federal elections, women gained 6 of the 16 federal cabinet positions and 36 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.
Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected. Adoption and tax legislation passed in 2014 gave equal rights to same-sex couples in these areas. However, the government does not grant same-sex couples the right to marry, instead providing the option of a civil partnership.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia are targeted for sex trafficking and forced labor. Asylum seekers, especially unaccompanied minors, are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation.