(CNN) German lawmakers will decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage Friday, just days after Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped her longstanding opposition to allowing a free vote on the issue in parliament.
The bill, which is widely expected to pass, would give homosexual couples in Germany the same rights as heterosexual couples. Once it has been officially signed into law, same-sex couples will be able to marry and jointly adopt children.
While civil partnerships have been available to gay couples in Germany since 2001, same-sex marriages have not been recognized by the state.
Two-thirds of Germans said they were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in a recent YouGov poll.
If approved by the Bundestag on Friday, the bill is likely to pass through the Bundesrat — Germany’s upper house — next week, paving the way for Germany to enter the club of more than 20 countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
A ‘vote of conscience’
Friday’s vote comes at the end of a turbulent week in German politics. Facing pressure on the issue from the leaders of other political parties, Merkel announced Monday that she would like to see parliament move towards a “vote of conscience” on same-sex marriage.
The Chancellor made the comment at an event in Berlin hosted by women’s magazine Brigitte, where she was asked by a gay man in the audience whether he would be able to refer to his partner as “my husband.”
Merkel responded by acknowledging the widespread support for gay marriage among German voters and suggesting a free vote in parliament, meaning lawmakers vote freely rather than being asked to support their parties’ official positions.
Her comments represent a significant shift for the German leader and her conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has long opposed same-sex marriage and promoted “traditional” family values.
Merkel under pressure
But with September’s election looming, Merkel has come under increasing pressure, with her main rivals and potential coalition partners announcing support for “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all).
The left-leaning Green party and the centrist FDP both said that they would not enter into any coalition deal with Merkel if “Ehe für alle” was not enshrined in it. The left-leaning Die Linke party has long supported full equality.
Following the Chancellor’s comments Monday, Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — the second largest party in parliament — tweeted: “We will push through marriage equality in Germany. This week.”
Friday is the last chance for parliament to vote on the issue before it breaks for the summer recess and election campaigning begins in earnest.
‘Disintegration of the social order’
While Merkel’s announcement delighted LGBT rights campaigners and many of the country’s liberal politicians, the vote has caused a rift within Merkel’s party.
Gay rights have long been a controversial issue within the CDU and its more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Some CSU politicians reacted angrily to Merkel’s comments and the vote.
“This is about the further disintegration of the social order,” tweeted CSU politican Hans-Peter Friedrich on Wednesday.
“Marriage is reserved for a woman and a man,” wrote Hans Reichart, a CSU politician in the Bavarian state parliament. “That must prevail!”
Anja Neundorf, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, sees Merkel’s change of stance as an election tactic designed to appeal to the average German voter — but one that could backfire among traditional, religious CSU supporters in Bavaria. Merkel needs the support of those voters to win the election.
CSU supporters “are much more sensitive to this issue” than other voters, Neundorf told CNN. And some might choose to simply stay at home on polling day, she explained.
By legalizing gay marriage, Germany would follow the path of many of its European neighbors, as well as countries around the world.
In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. More than 20 other nations have followed suit, including Spain, Canada, Argentina, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.