The origins of the current German system can be found in the postwar party system of West Germany. The two major parties that emerged after the end of World War II were the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). However, due to the nature of the electoral system, neither party has ever been able to form a single-party government. Government majorities have always consisted of one of the two major parties plus a smaller party, most commonly the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which for a long time was considered a viable partner for either of the two major parties. The only exception to this rule is the ‘grand coalition’ between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, a scenario which materializes from time to time with the last occurrence being after the 2005 federal election. In general, the German political system of the post-war period has been characterized by moderation and cooperation, in a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes and the turbulence of the interwar Weimar Republic. The 5% threshold for entry in the Bundestag was implemented with the explicit goal in mind of avoiding fragmentation in the legislature and the appearance of many small radical parties. This was one of the main institutional features of the interwar parliamentary democracy that has traditionally been blamed for the political instability of the period.
Main Political Parties in the 2013 Federal Election
Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union
The CDU/CSU is not actually a single party but two organizationally distinct Christian Democratic parties that have formed a parliamentary faction at the federal level known as ‘The Union’. Both parties were created after the end of World War II even though the CDU was in some the continuation of the pre-war Centre Party and CSU of the Bavarian People’s Party. Both parties are associated with conservative values and a moderate approach in economic policy in favour of the social market model. In recent years, however, there has been a marked turn towards more economically liberal and fiscally conservative policy positions. Angela Merkel’s CDU is a party with a nation-wide presence whereas CSU operates only in Bavaria (where CDU does not compete). Operating in predominantly Catholic Bavaria, the CSU has an overwhelmingly Catholic base (unlike CDU which attracts votes from both Protestants and Catholics in the rest of the country), it is slightly more conservative orientation on social issues and understandably more regionalist in relation to its sister party. The Union has dominated German politics: 5 of the 8 German chancellors since 1949 have come from CDU. None have come from CSU; there have been only two unsuccessful runs for the chancellery by candidates hailing from CSU in 1980 and 2002. The CDU/CSU is the big favourite to lead the next government in Germany, thanks largely to Angela Merkel’s popularity and the overwhelmingly positive evaluations among German voters of her handling of the Euro crisis.
Social Democratic Party
The Social Democratic Party of Germany is perhaps the most important political party in the history of European social democracy. It was founded in 1875 as a Marxist party but progressively underwent significant ideological transformation. In the famous 1959 party convention at Bad Godesberg, SPD decided to distance itself from Marxist ideas, move towards the centre and broaden its appeal beyond its traditional working-class base. It has led governing coalitions for about 20 years in total since the end of World War II and has been the junior governing partner in grand coalitions with CDU/CSU twice. Most of the party’s support comes from large urban areas in the north and west of the country. Since the painful economic reforms enacted by the last SPD-led government in 2003-2004, SPD has been experiencing a prolonged crisis, marked by a series of overwhelming defeats in regional and federal elections. Its current platform focuses on themes of economic inequality and banking reforms.
Free Democratic Party
The FDP is a pro-business, liberal party that currently serves as the junior coalition partner to ‘The Union’. The FDP has a long experience in government (total of 45 years, more than any other party) as it is almost always pivotal in the formation of coalition governments. It espouses pro-free market and socially liberal positions. In the 2009 federal elections it achieved its best electoral result ever (14.6%), but once in government the party experienced a severe decline in support, marked by a steep decline in polling numbers and defeats in regional elections. The perception of FDP as the party of the privileged has always been a handicap for the party and in the context of the European crisis, this image seems to be resurfacing for FDP despite the change in leadership. In addition, internal bickering and divisions – often aired in public – have compounded the problems of the party. As a result, one of the big and critical questions in the upcoming election is whether FDP will manage to surpass the 5% hurdle. The electoral performance of FDP will most likely determine the composition of the next government in Germany.
Alliance 90/Green Party
The Green party of Germany was formed in the 1970s and was the first significant party to emerge and shake up the political landscape that had crystallized since the 1950s in West Germany. It managed to gain seats in the Bundestag for the first time in 1983 and in 1993, after reunification, it merged with the East German Alliance 90. In 1998 it became junior coalition partner in the SPD-led government and during that term it abandoned its strict pacifist policy, endorsing the military intervention in Kosovo. The Green party’s campaign focuses on the goals of climate change prevention and sustainable development, with an emphasis on energy and transportation policies. In the upcoming federal election the party will struggle to improve upon its previous result (12.1%), the best in the history of the party thus far.
The Left Party is the main legacy of the German reunification in the 1990s on the country’s party system. It was founded in 2007 as a merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor the communist party that ruled East Germany up to 1989, and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG), a left-wing splinter-group of SPD. The emergence of the Left Party is one of the reasons for the steep electoral decline of the Social Democratic Party as it has attracted former SPD voters, disenchanted with the sweeping economic reforms of the SPD-led government in 2003-2004. However, the party’s strongholds remain in the eastern part of the country and the party has yet to consolidate its presence in many western states. In terms of its ideological platform, the party appears committed to antiglobalization, an economically Keynesianist program and strict pacifist policies of non-intervention. Even though there is considerable ideological pluralism within the Left Party, ranging from social democracy to unreformed communism, there are often charges of extremist leveled against the party.
The Pirate Party
Modeled after the Swedish Pirate Party, the Pirate Party of Germany was founded in 2006 and was able to gain a surprising 8.6% of the vote in the Berlin city-state election of 2011, before gaining more noticeable results in other regional elections as well as sudden notoriety in German society. They campaign on themes of web freedom and their base is made up primarily of younger voters. However, immediately after their electoral successes The Pirates appear to be losing their momentum, a trend attributed by many to damaging internal power struggles. At the moment it seems highly unlikely that the party will manage to surpass the 5% hurdle and is in danger of completing its comet-like rise and disappearance from the German political landscape.
Alternative for Germany
AfD is a new party, founded in 2013, a product of the eurozone crisis. It is conservative and runs as a single-issue party: it is against the euro, advocating the return of Germany to the deutche mark. The leader is Bernd Lucke, a professor of macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg, and other conservative academics and business leaders have endorsed a platform of rolling back the European monetary union as a means of protecting European integration. The party leadership claims it is not against the EU but only against the euro, even though the AfD has often been labeled as eurosceptic, nationalist and populist. In polls, the party appears to appeal to conservative segments of the German electorate disenchanted with Germany’s contribution to bailout packages for countries in the European periphery and in the upcoming election it is likely that it will compete with The Pirates for sixth place in terms of party list percentages, even if it will most probably fail to pass the 5% threshold.