Elections held in May 2010 in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, were largely seen as a test of the federal government’s performance. Two major parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), performed poorly, while the Greens and the Left Party made significant gains. A minority coalition was eventually formed between the SPD and the Greens. In June, Christian Wulff was elected president after his predecessor, Horst Köhler, abruptly resigned.
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 its second term, the Hartz I-IV labor market reforms were enacted, which aimed to create a more flexible market. However, the reforms eroded the support of labor unions, a key component of the SPD’s electoral base, and failed to improve the economy quickly enough to please voters.
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, and both sides were unwilling to cooperate with the newly formed Left Party. 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 began to build during the second half of its term, with each party trying to distinguish itself. Despite a lackluster political year, Merkel was overwhelmingly reelected as party leader at the end of 2008, and the SPD named Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as its chancellor candidate for the 2009 elections.
The political scene in 2009 was dominated by the federal parliamentary election. The CDU/CSU won 239 seats with approximately 34 percent of the vote, while the FDP took 93 seats, up from 61 in 2005.The SPD captured only 146 seats—an 11 percent decline over the 2005 results—representing its worst performance in a German federal election and the most significant decline in voter support of any party in federal elections in 60 years. Gains by the Greens were not significant enough to offset the SPD’s losses, and once again no party was willing to form a coalition with the Left Party. The CDU/CSU and FDP formed a majority coalition together without the SPD for the first time since 1998, and Merkel was reelected 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 is suspected of facilitating the murder of thousands of Jews at the Sobibor concentration camp. The ongoing trial has been contentious and continually delayed because Demjanjuk is quite elderly and in poor health. He is the only low-ranking official and the only foreign suspect to have been charged with Holocaust-related crimes. His trial is likely to be the last for Nazi-era war crimes because few people from that time are still alive.
Parliamentary elections for Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), were held on May 9, 2010. Similar to its federal counterpart, the incumbent government was a CDU-FDP coalition, with the main opposition coming from the SPD. At 59.3 percent, the voter turnout rate was atypically low for an NRW election.While the FDP gained one seat for a total of 13, the CDU lost 22 seats and the SPD lost 7, each securing only 67 of the 181 available seats. The Greens and the previously-unrepresented Left Party fared better than expected, gaining 11 seats each for a total of 23 and 11, respectively. The resulting hung parliament severely complicated local NRW politics. A variety of coalition options were explored during two months of heated political posturing until the SPD and the Greens formed a minority coalition. Political analysts predict that this outcome could indicate trouble for Merkel's government during the next federal elections.
President Horst Köhler resigned on May 31 after receiving criticism for comments that seemed to imply that military intervention abroad could be justified by economic interests. He defended the remarks as referring specifically to issues of piracy. On June 30, CDU candidate Christian Wulff was elected to replace Köhler.
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 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, 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, aparty 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 (SRP, a successor to the Nazi Party) in 1952 and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1956 on the grounds that their goals disregard the principles of the constitution. 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. The two main far-right parties, the National Democratic Party (NPD) and the German People’s Union (DVU), are hostile to immigration and the EU, and have been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In the run-up to the 2009 elections, the NPD—which captured less than 2 percent of the vote—made headlines by sending fake deportation notices to prominent Green and CDU politicians of immigrant or minority ethnic backgrounds.
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 15 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is protected in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2003 that surveillance of journalists’ telephone calls could be deemed legal by judges in “serious” cases, which threatens journalists’ source confidentiality. Journalists have also been prosecuted for “divulging state secrets.” Nevertheless, the press remains lively, investigative, and professional. It remains illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler.
Freedom of belief is protected under law. 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, the group has been under surveillance by intelligence agencies, and local labor offices in some cases help employers screen prospective employees (and vice-versa) for membership of scientology groups. However, Hamburg announced plans to close down its Scientology task force in August 2010. Eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing hijab (headscarves) on duty. Economic uncertainties in the aftermath of the global recession have worsened xenophobic tendencies toward immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, and there have been sporadic crimes against minorities. The far-right NPD, while failing to make headway at the federal level, does have some regional strongholds in the former East Germany, where it has been represented in two state parliaments since 2004. In October 2010 Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had failed, adding fuel to an ongoing debate about immigrant integration in Germany. 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.
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.
Women’s rights are well protected, with generous maternity policies and antidiscrimination laws. Women hold 6 of the 16 federal cabinet positions and 32.8 percent of the seats in parliament. Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected.