Living freely and equal before the law

Living freely and equal before the law

The right to freedom of expression, freedom to develop one's talents and personal freedom – freedom in every sense of the word – and equality were important to people in the national dialogue. Political participation was also a key issue. People want to get involved, play an active part in shaping their environment and have a say in decision-making.

The right to freedom of expression, freedom to develop one's talents and personal freedom – freedom in every sense of the word – and equality were important to people in the national dialogue. Political participation was also a key issue. People want to get involved, play an active part in shaping their environment and have a say in decision-making.

I’d like to be able to choose how I lead my own life without fear.
from an online response submitted on 22 June 2015

Elections – the foundation of democracy

Free, secret, equal and direct elections are at the heart of our democracy. Voter turnout shows the percentage of the eligible electorate that actually voted. It is a good indicator for people's interest in politics and often reflects particularly controversial political and social issues that are important at the time.

Yet not everyone uses his or her right to vote. After peaking in the 1970s, voter turnout has dropped significantly in Bundestag elections. It reached its low point in the Bundestag elections of 2009. In the last Bundestag elections 2017 voter turnout increased significantly. More than 76 per cent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote, which was five percentage points higher than in the last elections.

It is striking how differently population groups use their right to vote. People who are unemployed, on low incomes and of low socio-economic status vote less often than higher income and higher status groups.

Voter turnout in Bundestag elections as a percentage of eligible electorate

Voter turnout in Bundestag elections

The last Bundestag election was held on 24 September 2017. About 61.69 million German citizens were eligible to vote. Around 46.98 million availed themselves of this right to vote, corresponding to a voter turnout of 76.2 per cent.

Select your municipality or city:

The dots show voter turnout at the Bundestag election in 2017 for just over 400 districts and cities that do not belong to a district in Germany – from left to right, from the lowest to the highest voter turnout. On the map, every interactive dot stands for a district or city.

The transparent dots provide a comparison with the voter turnout at the Bundestag election in 2013. How does voter turnout in 2013 compare with turnout at the Bundestag election in 2017 in the 400 districts and cities in Germany?

The green lines connect voter turnout in 2013 and 2017 for the 400 districts. If the lines go up, this means that voter turnout in 2017 fell compared to the Bundestag election in 2013. If the lines go down, this means that voter turnout in 2017 rose compared to the Bundestag election in 2013.

It shows that in all districts and cities more people cast their ballot. This is a continuation of the trend already seen in recent Landtag elections.

With 73.2 per cent, voter turnout in eastern Germany was generally lower than in western Germany. However, compared to the previous Bundestag election, voter turnout increased by 5.7 percentage points. This increase was larger than in western Germany.

In western Germany voter turnout was at 76.8 per cent. Compared to the Bundestag election in 2013, voter turnout increased by 4.4 percentage points.

Marked regional differences in western Germany: Overall voter turnout as well as regional differences were higher in western Germany. With 84.1 per cent of eligible voter casting the ballot, the district of Starnberg in Bavaria had the highest voter turnout in Germany. In turn, Bremerhaven had the lowest voter turnout with only 63.1 per cent.

In eastern Germany voter turnout was highest in the city of Dresden with 78.4 per cent and lowest in the Salzlandkreis with 63.3 per cent.

Increase in voter turnout all over Germany: In each of the 401 districts voter turnout increased in the 2017 Bundestag election. The increase in voter turnout was smallest in Bremerhaven with a plus of 0.1 percentage points and highest in the district Freyung-Grafenau in Bavaria with 12.1 percentage points.

Largest increases in voter turnout in Bavaria: When comparing voter turnout in the 2013 and 2017 Bundestag elections, the 40 districts with the steepest increases in voter turnout were all in Bavaria. Increases were particularly marked, because Bavarian voter turnout had reached an all-time low in the 2013 Bundestag election.

Districts with highest voter turnout in western Germany: More than 80 per cent of eligible voter cast their ballot in the 40 districts with the highest voter turnout in the 2017 Bundestag elections. More than half of these districts were in Bavaria and five each in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Low voter turnout prevalent in eastern Germany: Less than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballot in the 40 districts with the lowest voter turnout in the 2017 Bundestag election. Of these, 24 districts were in eastern Germany, mainly in Saxony-Anhalt, but also in some regions of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-West-Pomerania. Of the districts with low voter turnout only few are in western Germany, mainly in Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.

Source: General Bundestag election statistics by the federal and state governments, ongoing spatial observation by the BSSR.
Geometry: © GeoBasis-DE / BKG 2016.

Higher voter turnout also seen in many Landtag elections

Democracy is a gift, but there is lack of awareness of just how great this gift is.
from the national dialogue event of the Deutsche Naturschutzring in Berlin on 1 September 2015

Until recently, many Landtag elections also experienced a drop in voter turnout. A comparison of voter turnout at the last and last-but-one Landtag elections shows that most federal states saw a fall in voter turnout, particularly in Thüringen, Bremen and Saxony. In Brandenburg, Bremen and Saxony voter turnout at the last Landtag election was below 50 per cent, so only one in two of the eligible electorate actually voted. The Landtag elections that took place in 2016 and 2017 mark a turnaround. In all federal states the voter turnout increased.

Voter turnout in the respective last and last-but-one Landtag elections as a percentage of eligible electorate

There was a slight turnaround at the Landtag elections held in March 2016 in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt. This positive trend continued at the elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin in September 2016, where many more people cast their vote. Many voters were motivated to have their say at these elections because of the hotly debated issue of refugee policy. But also at the Landtag elections held in 2017 more people casted their vote. The Saarland elections had the largest increase in voter turnout, but also in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia voter turnout increased by more than five percentage points. Voter turnout increased as well at October 2017 Landtag elections in Lower Saxony. A total of 63.1 per cent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote, an increase of four percentage points over the previous Landtag elections.

What Does the Government Do?

The Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung) provides information and helps voters to make decisions in the run-up to elections, for example with its online tool Wahl-O-Mat. The federally funded political foundations also work to promote active political participation.

Recognising and taking advantage of the opportunity to contribute

I wish citizens had more opportunities to participate. This event is a good start.

This statement by a participant at the national dialogue event of the Naturpark-Verein in Bad-Düben on 6 June 2015 shows that many people who took part in the initiative believed opportunities for political participation are important in order to create closer involvement. They spoke more specifically about strengthening direct democracy, for example through referenda at federal level.

It is important for democracy that citizens are well informed about policy and have opportunities to help shape it. This applies equally at federal, state and local level.

The aim of measuring opportunities for political participation is served by an indicator taken from the European Social Survey.2 It measures how people perceive their ability to influence politics.

In 2014, four out of ten citizens believed they had no or only very little chance of gaining an effective hearing for their beliefs and interests. Only one in five people believed they were able to exert a strong influence on politics.

Here too, groups with higher socio-economic status tend to take a more positive view of their opportunities for co-determination. Men and women with higher educational qualifications are much more optimistic about their chances of co-determination that people with a lower educational level. West Germans are more positive about their chances than East Germans.

Perceived ability for citizens to influence politics 2014

Compared to other countries in Europe Germany comes in the top third, in seventh place. People in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland believe they have better opportunities for co-determination. The figure is much lower in Slovenia, Hungary and Spain.

The results show the following: firstly, it is necessary to better communicate the existing opportunities for political participation and their effectiveness. This includes regular citizens' consultations, petitions, civic initiatives and referenda, along with party membership and the active and passive right to vote. It is a case of finding the means and opportunities for participation and encouraging poorly represented groups to get involved.

It is also important to try out new forms of participation, encounter and dialogue between citizens and politicians. Participants in the national dialogue were aware that they also have to take action. Only people who are actively involved can help to shape decision-making.

What Does the Government Do?

The federal government has opened up new opportunities for people to make their voices heard, for example in the national dialogue on "Wellbeing in Germany – what matters to us" and the dialogue on the energy transition that began in 2015. Other federal ministries have also joined in these debates.

A country of free and equal citizens

Our society is based on fundamental rights of freedom and equality. They guarantee that everyone in Germany is free to grow and develop as long as they do not impinge upon the rights of others. Participants in the national dialogue discussed fundamental rights in all their facets. The freedom to express one's opinion, staying informed thanks to an independent press, freedom of faith and religion – all of these aspects were important to everyone.

Being able to state your opinion without facing prosecution is a valuable asset.
from an online response submitted on 16 June 2015

It is very difficult to measure the situation with regard to how freedom and equality is actually guaranteed and how Germany compares to other countries. The World Justice Project index is one of the few international indices that allows this comparison. It is based on a survey and expert interviews.

Eight selected fundamental rights are measured individually and together on a scale of 0 to 1 (optimum conditions): equal treatment and absence of discrimination, the right to life and security of the person, compliance with due process of law and rights, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of belief and religion, freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, freedom of assembly and association, and fundamental labour rights.

Eight selected freedom-related fundamental rights in Germany

Compared to other countries Germany enjoys a high level of freedom, particularly with regard to freedom of opinion and assembly. In 2016 it came seventh out of 113 countries in the survey. However, the ranking showed that it has room for improvement in the areas of equal treatment and absence of discrimination.

The independent justice system headed up by the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) watches over the maintenance and protection of fundamental rights and the free press. The German General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz) and the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (Antidiskriminierungsstelle des Bundes) work to remove existing inequalities.

What Does the Government Do?

The Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency has been promoting more equal treatment since 2006. With its Live Democracy! (Demokratie Leben!) programme the federal government is seeking to combat ideologies that oppose freedom and democracy. It has earmarked more than 50 million euros of annual funding for this programme until 2019.

Footnotes

  1. 1

    Voter turnout for the state election in Lower Saxony in October 2017 is preliminary.

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  2. 2

    Along with Germany, 20 other EU countries took part in the seventh edition of the European Social Survey, which includes questions on opportunities for participation.

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