international analysis and commentary

Why Germany’s people’s parties are not dead (yet)


At the beginning of the ongoing legislature, several political analysts in Germany argued that coalitions formed with a strong predominance of one of the major parties (the CDU/CSU or the SPD) were evidently stuck in a rut because of the irreparable identity crisis of the people’s parties.

“People’s parties without the people” titled the weekly The Economist on August 6, 2009, just one month before the last federal elections, pointing at the difficulties of Christian and Social-Democrats in gaining new voters in the “middle” of the country’s body politic, young voters in particular. The German media and many political scientists (such as Lothar Probst) perceived the crisis of the so-called “catch-all-parties” as a social and cultural crisis of the whole political system.

Stuck in a Grand Coalition which made them even more vulnerable to attacks by fringe parties, both Christian and Social Democrats lacked a long-term vision for forcefully running the country, so said the critics. Unlike in the first years of the Bundesrepublik, the major parties seemed unable to appeal to all segments of society. The Grand Coalition, formed in November 2005, was mostly judged by those critics as a last desperate attempt by the two Volksparteien to keep sitting on the federal government bench, without making a compromise with a third junior party – beside the traditional “kingmaker”, i.e. the FDP or the Greens, depending on the circumstances).

In 2009, for the first time in sixty years, the dramatic turnout of both Christian and Social Democrats, which gathered less than 57% of the votes, seemed to confirm this view, since a clear shift of votes towards smaller parties, all representing very specific milieus, took place. Albeit dropping to its second-worst result since its foundation, the CDU/CSU could somehow perform decently thanks to Mrs. Merkel’s reputation. At the same time, however, the extraordinary rise of the Free Democrats (14.6%), should have posed a threat to the CDU prospects of remaining the people’s party. As one could see during this legislature, the FDP was badly damaged by Mrs. Merkel’s choice to run the country in an unforeseeably pragmatic way.

Prior to the 2009 general elections, the alleged decline of German people’s parties was registered also in Land elections (Landtagswahlen), in particular after the 2008 Hesse State election: the political landscape after the vote was so complicated that the Social Democrats and the Greens even started thinking of sealing a deal with a third party (The Left – Die Linke) in order to increase their chances of forming a new government a year later at the federal level. This precedent seemed to endanger another cornerstone of the German political system, namely the practice of declaring coalition preferences before casting the ballots and not thereafter. Almost two years ago, then, the unexpected success of the Pirates party in the four German States led many observers to think that a six-party constellation could eventually become reality and jeopardize the proverbial stability of the German political landscape.

Four years have almost passed and the aforementioned scenario of an utterly fragmented political system is no longer in sight. At least, not for now. Recent opinion polls show Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU leading with almost 40% of the vote, while the SPD is lagging behind by more than ten percentage points (27%). Since the Fukushima disaster, the Greens have been enjoying a widespread consensus among liberal voters (which makes up about 15% of the votes), the same support that was once enjoyed by the Free Democrats and progressively suffocated by Mrs. Merkel’s action and by their own political inaptitude to push through the promised tax cuts. The pro-market FDP has in fact been struggling to retain its seats in parliament almost since the beginning of the legislature.

Also The Left party has been progressively loosing relevance in the political arena. Last year Die Linke dropped out of many regional parliaments in the West of Germany. Surveys now show The Left retaining its seats merely because of its historic strong influence in the East of Germany. After the boom of last year, also the maverick Pirates are now undergoing a profound crisis, due to their inability to deal with matters radically different from their core business, namely advocating internet freedom and fighting against government surveillance. Since last year, the euro crisis has dramatically deepened and the Pirates have not been able to deliver any credible and unified position on how to tackle it. That is why so many voters have been growing disillusioned with them.

As it happened in the 1990s with the Republikaner, a radical right-wing party, the Pirates are probably going to be remembered for their quite short-term influence, caused by voter discontent and protest, rather than for having brought any sensible innovation into German politics. On the contrary, the Greens, born in the 1980s as a single-issue-party, more or less like the Pirates, have understood over the years the importance of gaining wider support among citizens also through economic and social policy proposals. German public opinion is currently too preoccupied with the financial consequences of the debt crisis for a party that abstains from taking a precise position on such a key matter.

Theoretically, the only party that could win enough votes to trigger instability in the German party system is the brand new anti-euro party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded last autumn by a group of economists, journalists and former CDU and FDP politicians. Its program is focused on audacious schemes for letting weaker member States abandon the euro and holding referendums on returning to national currencies. However, as many surveys already revealed, the party does not dispose of a charismatic personality with enough of a populist touch, such as that of Austrian businessman, Frank Stronach. The triumvirate which is currently leading the party is a dull combination of elderly politicians and outsider economists.

No one in Germany would bet the party could enter the Bundestag, though some recent polls show that as many as 25% of voters flirt with the idea of casting the ballot for them. To go after euro skeptic voters is surely intelligent, since a clear majority of the German people is growing dissatisfied with rescue packages that are getting bigger and bigger. Nevertheless, the German electorate sticks to the tradition of directing its votes to parties able to conceptualize a coherent view of society rather than just articulate specific grievances or narrow goals. And after all the popularity of Mrs. Merkel is still too high for a new party to erode the CDU/CSU’s consensus.

The downfall of traditional fringe parties such as the FDP and The Left and the inability of new ones (The Pirates and AfD) to break up the system, make the people’s parties survival a lot easier. Only on the left side of the political spectrum we may observe a limited competition between the SPD and the Greens. The latter are increasingly gaining support across almost all sectors of society, the people’s party alike, thus irritating the social democratic elite. The former are extremely litigious mainly because the so-called “Agenda 2010” pursued by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has still not been completely digested: the nomination of the highly controversial former Finance Minister, the centrist Peer Steinbrück, as the SPD’s top-candidate for Chancellor could turn into a boomerang.

It remains to be seen if the SPD’s leadership question is paradigmatic of a more general crisis of the people’s party as a general category. The history of the Federal Republic shows that there have been many other situations in which mainstream party dominance was put into question by voters. As political scientist Thomas Poguntke pointed out in 2001, the crisis of Volksparteien is structural and terminal  rather than contingent and temporary.

After almost two decades (from 1961 to 1983) of growing political concentration, both the birth of the Greens in the 198os and the rise of the PDS in the 1990s represented a serious threat to the traditional stability of the German system. In the end, the Volksparteien survived all these turbulences. As the January 2013 Lower-Saxony election figures show, “catch-all-parties” are more valuable alive than dead.