Germany | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Germany

Germany

Free
94/100
Overview: 

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 Germany has generally been stable since the mid-20th century, political tensions have grown following an influx of asylum seekers into the country and the growing popularity of a right-wing party, among other issues.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • After lengthy negotiations, Chancellor Angela Merkel formed a coalition government in March that includes her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). All three parties had suffered heavy losses in the 2017 federal election.
  • After 18 years as the head of the CDU, Merkel announced in October that she would step down as chairperson at year’s end, and that she would not seek another term as chancellor in the 2021 elections.
  • In August and September, anti-immigration protests in Chemnitz turned violent when far-right demonstrators attacked and harassed people they perceived to be immigrants. Clashes also erupted between the right-wing protestors and counterdemonstrators, and a number of journalists reported being assaulted while trying to cover the unrest.
  • In January, the controversial Network Enforcement Act, which compels social media companies to delete content deemed hate speech, came into full effect. Some rights groups claimed that thousands of posts that do not actually constitute hate speech were removed by social media platforms trying to comply with the law.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 39 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Germany’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen by the Federal Convention, a body formed jointly by the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) and state representatives. The president can serve up to two five-year terms. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD was elected president in early 2017.

The federal 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. Angela Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor following 2017 Bundestag elections, which were held in accordance with democratic standards. After 18 years as the head of the CDU, Merkel announced in October that she would step down as chairperson at year’s end, and that she would not seek another term as chancellor in the 2021 elections.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The German constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, 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 of 598. The 2017 elections saw 709 representatives elected to the Bundestag. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe deemed the elections transparent and free from manipulation.

 Merkel’s CDU-CSU won 246 seats. The SPD, the CDU-CSU’s coalition partner in the last government, took 153 seats. Both parties posted their worst results since 1949. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) reentered the Bundestag with 80 seats, and the Greens won 67. The far-left party the Left, widely viewed as a successor to the East German communists, took 69 seats. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag for the first time in its history, taking 94 seats, posting particularly strong results in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Following negotiations of an unprecedented length, the CDU-CSU and SPD renewed their coalition government, and in March 2018, the new government under Merkel was sworn in.

In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education, policing, taxation, and spending. State governments appoint Bundesrat members, and in this manner can influence national policies. Two state elections took place in October, in Bavaria and Hesse. In both elections, the parties that compose the governing coalition suffered heavy losses, leading to doubts about the sustainability of the coalition.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

Germany’s electoral laws and framework are fair and impartial. A failure to reform the problem of so-called overhang seats led to an inflated number of Bundestag members following the 2017 elections. (German voters cast two ballots—one for a candidate in their constituency and another for a party, with the latter vote determining the total number of seats a party will hold in the Bundestag. If a party wins more seats in the first vote than are permitted by results of the second, it gets to keep these “overhang” seats. The extra seats are costly, and in the past have been deemed unconstitutional for allowing a party more seats than it is formally allotted.) With 709 members, Germany now has the world’s second-largest national parliament, after China.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

The dominant political parties have traditionally been the SPD and the CDU-CSU, although other parties have increased their support in recent years. 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 constitution makes it possible to ban political parties, although a party must be judged to pose a threat to democracy for a ban to be legal, and no party has been successfully banned since 1956. More recently, in 2017 the Federal Constitutional Court found the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NPD) to be unconstitutional, but ruled that it did not pose a great enough threat to merit a ban.

Support for the AfD has risen in recent years, as the party has moved further to the right of the political spectrum. As of 2018, the party is represented in the Bundestag, as well as in all state parliaments. While the increase in popularity has shaken the German political system, most parties oppose the AfD.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

While German government is very much consensus oriented, opposition parties have a realistic opportunity to increase their support and gain power through elections. Merkel, during her time as chancellor, has changed her coalition partners a number of times.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4

The German government is democratically accountable to the voters, who are free to throw their support behind their preferred candidates and parties without undue influence on their political choices.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Germany’s constitution gives all citizens age 18 or older the right to vote, and this guarantee applies regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, some groups are underrepresented in politics. The 2017 federal elections saw a decrease in the representation of women in the Bundestag, down to 30.9 percent, the lowest number since 1998. In the Bundestag, 8 percent of members are from immigrant backgrounds, having at least one parent who was born without German citizenship.

Nearly eight million foreign-born residents were unable to vote in the 2017 federal elections, a high number that is partly a result of restrictive citizenship and voting laws. In order to gain German citizenship, residents must renounce the citizenship of their home countries, which contributes to low rates of naturalization and large numbers of long-term residents who cannot vote in federal elections.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

Democratically elected representatives decide and implement policy without undue interference.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4

Germany generally has strong and effective safeguards against corruption. However, the regulatory framework on lobbying members of parliament is considered inadequate by Transparency Germany. For example, there is no central lobbying register in Germany. In a report released in February 2018, The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) criticized Germany for a lack of transparency in the financing of political parties.

Watchdogs continue to express concerns about a controversial 2015 data retention law, which they view as a threat not only to general privacy (the law requires telecommunications companies to store users’ telephone and internet data for 10 weeks) but also to whistleblowers, who could be punished under a section detailing illegal data handling. In 2017, a court suspended implementation of the law, stating that it could be in violation of EU law. In April, the Administrative Court of Cologne ruled that the legislation was indeed incompatible with EU law. Whistleblowers receive few legal protections in Germany.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4

The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. In June 2018, the government introduced question time, in which the chancellor answers questions from the parliament three times per year.

In late 2016, Germany joined the Open Government Partnership. In 2017 the government published a National Action Plan that detailed initiatives designed to improve transparency and encourage citizen involvement in government, although the government had made little progress in implementing these measures at the end of 2018.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 55 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF 14 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

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 September 2018, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported an increase in attacks against journalists during the year, including at demonstrations in the city of Chemnitz in late August and early September, which broke out after two immigrants allegedly stabbed and killed a German man at the city’s street festival. Several journalists were reportedly assaulted while attempting to report on the far-right demonstrations. Journalists and NGOs subsequently criticized the police for not doing enough to protect journalists at far-right protests, and called on the authorities to provide the security necessary for reporters to safely cover such events. In August, the police came under criticism for preventing a television crew from ZDF, a public television broadcaster, from filming for 45 minutes at a demonstration in Dresden by Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), a far-right anti-Islamic group, after an off-duty police officer claimed they were not allowed to record the event.                    

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, eight states have passed laws prohibiting schoolteachers from wearing headscarves, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for civil servants.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer caused controversy in March 2018 by stating that “Islam does not belong to Germany” in response to Chancellor Merkel’s assertion that the religion does have a place in the country. In April, the state government of Bavaria was criticized for ordering crosses to be displayed in all government buildings beginning in June.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is generally respected, though legal prohibitions on extremist speech are enforceable in school and university settings.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Private discussion and internet access are generally unrestricted, but recent developments have prompted concern about government surveillance of private communications. In 2013, documents leaked by former US 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. A parliamentary inquiry into the nature of cooperation between the NSA and BND concluded in 2017 and had inconclusive results. In 2017, the Bundestag passed a law allowing state security services to use spyware to conduct surveillance of encrypted online messaging services like WhatsApp when conducting criminal investigations.

In January 2018, the controversial Network Enforcement Act came into full effect.. The law compels social media companies to delete content deemed to clearly constitute illegal hate speech within 24 hours of being reported, and content that appears to be illegal hate speech within seven days. RSF claims that, to comply with the law, social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter removed thousands of posts that should not be considered hate speech during the year.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the German constitution and is generally respected in practice, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing democratic order. In August and September 2018, anti-immigration protests in Chemnitz turned violent when far-right protestors attacked and harassed people they perceived to be immigrants. Clashes also erupted between the right-wing protestors and counterdemonstrators, with both sides throwing projectiles at each other. As a result of the unrest, at least 18 people were injured.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Germany has a vibrant sphere of NGOs and associations, which operate freely.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are generally free to organize, and play an important role in shaping Germany’s economic model.

F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4

The judiciary is independent, and generally enforces the rights provided by Germany’s laws and constitution. A debate surrounding the independence of the judiciary broke out in August 2018 after a minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) criticized a court decision ordering the return of a man with former ties to al-Qaeda, at taxpayer expense, who had been deported to Tunisia in July. The court stated that immigration authorities had deceived the court which had ordered the deportation of the man, who had been living illegally in Germany since 2007 and had allegedly served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. In response to the ruling, NRW Interior Minister Herbert Reul of the CDU stated that judges’ decisions should be consistent with the public’s “sense of justice,” for which he later expressed regret.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4

The rule of law prevails in Germany. Civil and criminal matters are treated according to legal provisions and with due process. However, courts can authorize “preventive detention” practices, by which a person who was convicted of certain violent crimes can be detained after serving their sentence in full if they are deemed to pose a danger to the public.

In 2018, the state governments of Bavaria and NRW passed controversial police laws that significantly increased the surveillance powers of law enforcement. The Bavarian police law, passed in May, gives the police sweeping powers to bug private apartments, restaurants, and offices; open mail; and access private data stored in the cloud. The law also allows police to take preemptive action if they believe there is an “impending danger,” a vaguely defined term that critics assert could make the law vulnerable to abuse. NRW passed a similar law in December, and several other states were considering police legislation that could threaten civil liberties at year’s end.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), came under scrutiny in 2018 for allegedly supporting the AfD by informing party leaders about BfV investigations into AfD officials, as well as sharing sensitive information with and advising AfD members on how to avoid surveillance. Maassen was reassigned to a senior position in the Interior Ministry in September, following these revelations and remarks he made insinuating that reports of attacks against people who appeared foreign during the Chemnitz demonstrations was fake news. He was fired from his Interior Ministry position in November.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Attacks on refugees and refugee housing continued to decline from a peak of 3,500 in 2016. In the first half of 2018, around 700 such attacks were reported. Reported attacks on Muslims and mosques also decreased from 950 in 2017 to 813 in 2018. However, the government reported that the number of documented anti-Semitic attacks increased by 10 percent during the year.

The threat posed by terrorist groups to national and regional security remained a significant concern in 2018, but no major attacks occurred during the year.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4

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. Rhetoric against refugees remained prominent in the German public sphere in 2018. PEGIDA, which developed into a large protest movement in 2014, remained active in 2018 and continued to be one of the most vocal opponents of asylum and migration. The AfD used strong rhetoric against asylum seekers and migrants throughout its state election campaigns.

In July, in order to maintain her governing coalition amidst intense pressure from Interior Minister Seehofer, Chancellor Merkel agreed to restrictive new asylum and migration policies, which include building camps along Germany’s international borders to hold asylum seekers, and deporting any asylum seeker who had previously applied for asylum in another EU country.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Freedom of movement is legally protected and generally respected, although the refugee crisis and security concerns related to activity by the Islamic State (IS) militant group 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.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4

The rights to own property and engage in commercial activity are respected.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4

The government generally does not restrict social freedoms. 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 affects a limited number of companies. Adoption and tax legislation passed in 2014 gave equal rights to same-sex couples in these areas. The government legalized same-sex marriage in 2017.

In 2018, a debate continued over a Nazi-era law banning doctors from providing information on or advertising abortion services. While abortion is permitted in Germany within the first trimester, a doctor was fined in 2017 for listing abortion services on her website, which led to calls to reform or repeal the law. In December, the government proposed a reform that would allow clinics and doctors to state that they offer abortions, but maintain a ban on advertising the procedure.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4     

According to the US State Department’s 2018 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.