The Changing Political Party Landscape in Germany

At first blush, Germany’s political­ party system appears surprisingly stable, at least when compared with dramatically shifting systems in other European countries. For example, Germany is certainly not France, where the incumbent president belongs to a party that didn’t even exist three years ago,­­ a party that he created willy­-nilly to fit his own brand of politics, and that right off of the blocks captured a majority of the National Assembly.

Nor is Germany Italy, which is incoherently governed by two populist parties, one far-­right and all of twenty-eight years old, the other far­-left and ten years old. Nor is it Austria right next door, where one of the traditional centrist parties (the direct analog of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union) governs with a far­-right populist party (the analog of the Alternative for Germany), and hardly anybody even bats an eyelid.

Nor is Germany the United Kingdom, where the large traditional parties­­ dating back to the conflicts of the Industrial Revolution between toffs and proletarians­­ are in the process of dissolving because they have no coherent views on the defining issue of the day: Britain’s relationship with the European Union and Brexit.

Germany is a country that, superficially, looks boring.

Instead, Germany is a country that, superficially, looks boring. It has been run by the same chancellor for fourteen years, and for ten of those years even by the exact same coalition between the two large centrist parties. Odds are that this chancellor will serve out her current term until 2021, and then hand over to a successor who belongs to the same party, and who is generally deemed to be a mini version of the incumbent. What could be more stable?

In fact, however, this stability is deceptive. The ­political party system in Germany, like those in other EU countries, is in flux. And even though these changes may not lead to upstart parties capturing the chancellery any time soon, they could nonetheless shift German policy—domestic and foreign.

A Brief History of Germany’s Post­war Party System

West Germany after World War II tried to prevent the fragmentation of the party system that was one factor in bringing down the Weimar Republic and introduced a 5 percent threshold required for a party to enter parliament. Nonetheless, West Germany initially appeared doomed once again to have a multi­party cacophony. In 1949, eleven parties made it into the first Bundestag.

This changed fundamentally in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the party system consolidated into the form that would mark most of the remaining “Bonn Republic.” The Christian Union parties (i.e., the CSU in Bavaria and its national sister, the CDU), which had already absorbed both Catholic and Protestant movements dating to the Weimar Republic, kept swallowing other minions to become one big tent on the center ­right. The Social Democrats (SPD), the only party that could point to an uninterrupted lineage to the nineteenth century, squatted on the center ­left. Between them sat a smaller liberal party, the Free Democrats (FDP), who would henceforth function as kingmakers.

This threesome created a remarkably stable and quintessentially West German consensus. The center-right had emphasized the “Western bond” to the U.S. and France. The center-left later emphasized a detente with, and opening toward, the East. The center-right had emphasized the word “market” in Ludwig Erhard’s Social Market Economy; the center-left later emphasized the word “social” in that phrase. But beyond nuances in emphasis, the entire West German elite accepted one joint canon, a range of permissible policy options, both domestic and foreign.

Political “crises” in this context were at most hiccups. The first “grand coalition” between the big blocs on center-left and center-right, in the 1960s, was short-lived and left no legacy. The rest of the time, the FDP, by toggling between the large parties, moderated each of the larger partners. The FDP displayed its power most spectacularly with a parliamentary maneuver in 1982 that ousted a center-left government and brought in the center-right. But even this “palace coup” had no major consequences for German policy (on the stationing of American missiles, for example).

This consensual partisan culture also effectively kept extremists out of parliament. During a time of home­grown left­wing terrorism, the SPD ensured that communist parties had no chance. On the other side, the Union parties reached out far enough to “the right” to prevent any far­ far­-right from thriving. This was the essence of Franz Josef Strauss’ famous statement that “there must be no democratically legitimate party to the right of the Union.” Several far-right parties were founded during the Bonn Republic, but all eventually foundered.

Shocks and Harbingers

Shock 1: The Greens

In retrospect, the first sign of change was the entry, in the 1980s, of the Greens into the Bundestag as a fourth bloc. The Green Party had been born out of the counterculture and the anti-­nuclear movements of the 1960s and 1970s (but also the Marxist milieus of West German universities). Suddenly, West Germans watching the evening news saw parliamentarians wearing sneakers and breast­feeding their babies in the Bundestag, and calling each other “asshole” (Joschka Fischer).

Shock 2: Reunification

The bigger shock to the system came after 1990, when the East Germans suddenly joined the Federal Republic, and the Bonn Republic had to become a Berlin Republic. The East Germans, unsurprisingly, had no emotional connection with any of the West German political parties. This fed an Eastern grievance mythology that reunification had been not a merger but a Western takeover.

In alienation, many Easterners initially didn’t vote at all. Others, out of a reactionary nostalgia, supported East Germany’s former Socialist Unity Party, which via several name changes disguised itself as Die Linke (The Left) and entered the Bundestag on the far left as the fifth bloc. More recently, Easterners also disproportionately helped the Alternative for Germany (AfD) to enter the Bundestag as its sixth bloc, on the far right. Both The Left and the AfD, nodding to their Eastern clientele, peddle a steady diet of anti-American and pro-­Russian rhetoric, among other things. They are, in effect, protest parties.

Shock 3: The Refugee Crisis of 2015

Even the AfD, however, would probably have failed to enter the Bundestag had it not been for the refugee crisis of 2015. That summer, the AfD, like other far-right upstarts before it, was close to self-destructing, consumed by an internal leadership schism and generally polling around the 5 percent threshold. It was only the arrival of about 1 million refugees in the fall of 2015 and the winter of 2016, and the resulting breakdown of order in an order-obsessed country, that catapulted the AfD safely above the threshold. In the election of 2017, the AfD received 12.5 percent. It has kept polling in that range ever since (and much higher in the East).

Underlying Changes: Away from Left-Right and toward Open-­Closed

The rise of the AfD during the refugee crisis thus brought Germany into line with a wider trend in Western countries: a shift from the left-right polarity of politics in the twentieth century to an open­-closed spectrum in the twenty-first.

Domestic politics during the Bonn Republic was essentially about how freely to let capitalism reign. A left-­leaning working class was demanding more redistribution, while a right­-leaning middle class was resisting. These conflicts are still around, under the headings “inequality” or, in German parlance, “social justice.” But they have been subsumed by a new conflict.

Domestic politics in Germany, as in other countries, is increasingly about how openly to welcome foreigners. A cosmopolitan class (which one author has called the “Anywheres”) wants to embrace globalization, while a nativist population (the “Somewheres”) wants to reverse globalization.

Thus, domestic politics in Germany, as in other countries (notably Poland and Hungary), is increasingly about how openly to welcome foreigners. A cosmopolitan class (which one author has called the “Anywheres”) wants to embrace globalization, while a nativist population (the “Somewheres”) wants to reverse globalization.

Thus, the Anywheres tend to welcome immigration (provided it is orderly). For economic reasons, they want to make it easier for skilled workers from outside the EU to enter the German labor market, which suffers talent shortages in some sectors. (This is the line of the FDP, for example.) For humanitarian reasons, they also want to keep accepting refugees, albeit in manageable numbers. (This sentiment is strongest among the Greens.) The Anywheres also tend to support free trade, on the premise that it benefits them.

The Somewheres oppose migration, and generally also free trade. Like the Anywheres, they also cut across the old left-right spectrum. Thus far-left politicians like Sahra Wagenknecht or Oskar Lafontaine of The Left and far-­right politicians like Alexander Gauland or Björn Höcke of the AfD all want to “close the borders.” But Ms. Wagenknecht and Mr. Lafontaine (who are married) want to close them primarily because they see migrants as unwanted rivals to German workers for low-wage jobs, as well as deadbeat burdens on a welfare state that they dream of expanding for their nativist base. Mr. Gauland and Mr. Höcke want to close them primarily because they see migrants as diluting German ethnic identity (a sense of “Heimat” in German parlance).

Effects of the Open-­Closed Shift on the Mainstream Parties

The SPD

The shift from a left-right to an open­-closed polarity is yet another reason for the secular, and probably unstoppable, decline of the SPD. Most of its traditional supporters have always been blue-collar workers and trade unionists (with a few tweed­-jacketed intellectuals added to lead the choir). These voters tend to be Somewheres, and have never shared their party elite’s rhetorical cosmopolitanism. They instinctively fear competition from foreigners for low-­wage work. Many are defecting to the AfD.

Migration, of course, is not the only reason for the SPD’s decline, which mirrors that of its sister parties across Europe. Another is the SPD’s shocking lack of imagination and flexibility in adjusting to new economic realities. Even as the party keeps promising “fresh” ideas, it keeps rehashing old and hackneyed ones. To independent swing voters, it appears stuck in the Second Industrial Revolution, even as voters worry about the looming digital transformation known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a transformation in which left­-right redistribution tensions and open-­closed anxieties get conflated.

To cite just one example, the SPD refuses even to examine (without necessarily even endorsing) a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a prime example of a bold and “fresh” idea for a new digital age. The SPD’s stated reason is that it is the “party of work” or “of labor.” This insinuates that a UBI would by definition devalue or discourage work as such. But the effects of a UBI on the propensity to work are as yet completely unknown, and thus the focus of the research the SPD is rejecting. Instead of thinking deeply, the SPD, as if by muscle memory, merely keeps offering new handouts to specific sub­groups (low-income pensioners, for example).

And thus the SPD, which at its height in 1972 came in first with 45.8 percent, suffered the humiliation of 20.5 percent in 2017, and the further insult in many recent polls of falling below the Greens to become the third-ranking bloc in the German spectrum.

The Greens

The Greens are the primary benefactors of the shift from left-­right to open­-closed politics.

In the past, the Greens have been plagued by an internal struggle between moderates (“Realos”) and radicals (“Fundis”). But whenever the Fundis (such as Jürgen Trittin, an ex­Communist) have prevailed by running on wealth taxes or other soak­-the-­rich measures, the Greens have fared badly in the polls. This is because many of their supporters, unlike the supporters of the other two left parties, are themselves wealthy. By contrast, whenever the Greens have de­emphasized or even ignored redistribution, as Winfried Kretschmann has done in Baden-­Württemberg, they have fared well.

Since the refugee crisis, moreover, the Greens have become the party that most uncompromisingly hews to its cosmopolitan, humanitarian, and pro­-migrant philosophy. This clarity appeals to the many Germans who share this sentiment, and who at the ballot box want to send a clear signal rejecting the AfD. The recent rise of the Greens is therefore the direct counterpart of the earlier rise of the AfD.

Statistics on voter migrations in recent regional polls, such as those in Hesse and Bavaria, bear out this trend. In both places, the big-­tent Union parties (the CDU and CSU, respectively) lost voters almost equally to the AfD on one side and the Greens on the other. Voters, in other words, migrated away from the woolly middle ground and to the clearer poles representing “open” and “closed.” In effect, it is now the Greens, not the Social Democrats, who are the mainstream center-left alternative to the Union parties.

The FDP

The rise of the Greens must count as the most disastrous recent failure on the part of the allegedly liberal FDP. In theory, it should be the natural home for cosmopolitan Anywheres, for proponents of openness. But the FDP under Christian Lindner has muddled its message on the defining issue of migration. Its rhetoric is nuanced and complicated, in some cases peddling liberal rhetoric, in others dog whistling to conservatives and even AfD voters.

The FDP is instead trying to sell itself as the only party that “gets” the digital revolution. But that term (“Digitalisierung” in German) is vague. And in any case, it is not clear what special expertise the FDP brings to the topic.

The failure to pick up the cosmopolitan voters who have recently moved toward the Greens is thus one reason why the FDP, having won 10.7 percent in 2017, remains stuck in the polls at around 8 percent.

The Union (CDU and CSU)

The shift toward an open­-closed spectrum puts the two Union parties in a bind almost as suffocating as the SPD’s. Pundits have always called the Union a “Kanzlerwahlverein,” a club for the election of chancellors. The Union’s brand essence is success at the ballot box and pragmatic and competent governance, not ideological sophistication or purity.

The Union’s brand essence is success at the ballot box and pragmatic and competent governance, not ideological sophistication or purity.

Thus, even in the old left­-right spectrum, the Union never (from an American perspective) positioned itself clearly against redistribution and for the market. Instead, it balances its pro­business wing against its Catholic­-socialist wing. Angela Merkel and, even more so, Annegret Kramp-­Karrenbauer are deemed to be left­-leaning in their economic instincts.

The Union brings the same ambiguity to open­-closed issues, and above all migration. Soon after Ms. Merkel “opened the borders” in September of 2015, the Union began shifting rhetorically toward “closed” again. The Bavarian CSU, in the person of Horst Seehofer, began using anti-­migrant vocabulary more commonly heard in stump speeches by the AfD or Viktor Orban. In government, the Union (with the SPD) has been tweaking laws to facilitate rejecting and deporting more asylum applicants.

The Union’s best hope is to return to its brand as the only party that is competent enough actually to deliver order. In 2015 and 2016, it lost control over migration. Since then, it has restored control. (Migrant numbers are down and stable.)

Rhetorically, however, the Union, and especially its heir apparent, Ms. Kramp­-Karrenbauer, is struggling. This was on full display during the leadership debates last fall between Ms. Kramp­Karrenbauer and her two main rivals for the party leadership, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn. On the topic of migration, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer had to perform acrobatic linguistic contortions to sound both tough and humane, both closed and open. Voters who demand more clarity opt either for the AfD or the Greens.

Implications for the Rest of the Current Term

Ms. Merkel, the incumbent chancellor, has confirmed that this term, her fourth, will also be her last. (Germany has no term limits.) Nonetheless, there are recurring rumors that she may not even hang onto power for the remainder of this legislature. Last year, the occasion was antics and tantrums by her Bavarian frenemies in the CSU (over migration). This year, it is the sullen and bitter depression by her other partners, the Social Democrats. They never wanted to form another coalition with the Union parties in the first place but were in effect forced into it (by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as it happens, a Social Democrat who in his new role is expected to be above party politics).

In one scenario, the Social Democrats, perhaps later this year, could walk out of the coalition with Ms. Merkel, citing some small policy disagreement as an excuse. Germany would then be faced with several options.

Minority Government

Of these, as I have argued since 2017, a minority government would be the healthiest for German democracy. One reason for the rise of the AfD is a widespread perception in the German public that the Bundestag, during the Merkel years, has not been a satisfactory republican forum for debating and airing the biggest issues of our time. Instead, Ms. Merkel, with her numerically overwhelming coalitions, has technocratically decided policies behind closed doors, then presented them to the Bundestag as “alternative­less.” Hence the backlash, in the form of a party that self­-consciously called itself the “Alternative.”

A minority government would restore democratic suspense and drama, and thus elevate the role of parliament as such. All it would mean is that the Union, without a majority of seats, would have to seek shifting majorities in the chamber for each piece of legislation. This need not spell instability as it did during the Weimar Republic (which is often the stated reason against minority governments in Germany). First, the German constitution only allows votes of no confidence if parliament simultaneously elects a new chancellor. Second, the mainstream parties would probably be prepared to “tolerate” a minority government by the Union.

However, Ms. Merkel, a deliberately bland orator, has the wrong temperament to lead a minority government. In any event, she has ruled out doing so. This scenario would thus mean an accelerated accession of Ms. Kramp-­Karrenbauer to the chancellery. (She is not a member of the current parliament, but a German chancellor need not be.)

“Jamaica”

The second option following a collapse of the current coalition is a swift transition to a different partnership: between the Union parties, the Greens, and the FDP. This is often called a “Jamaica” coalition in Germany, because the Jamaican flag has the colors of the three blocs. (The Union’s black dates back to the black robes worn by the clergy that formed its original base; the FDP’s yellow came out of a postwar advertising campaign; the Greens’ green is meant so say “ecological.”)

The three blocs (consisting of four parties) came close to such a Jamaica coalition in 2017, until the FDP’s Christian Lindner, in a fit of jejune theatricality, walked out. To this day, many FDP supporters are angry at him for this, because they want the FDP to have input into actual policy as a governing party, not to grandstand as a protest party. Mr. Lindner would therefore be under huge pressure to agree to Jamaica if it came around again. His one condition would be that it cannot be under Ms. Merkel. This path would thus also lead to a faster accession by Ms. Kramp-­Karrenbauer.

One problem is the motivation of the Greens. They hold 9 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, but are polling at around 20 percent, so they could demand proportionately more cabinet posts, which in turn would be hard to swallow for the Union and the FDP. But the Greens hunger for federal power (which they last had in 2005), and would probably settle for a compromise.

Snap Elections

The third option is a snap election. This could conceivably deliver a black­-green coalition (nicknamed “kiwi”, after the fruit). But it could also return an arithmetic balance similar to the current one.

Stability through the Term

By looking at the above options, the SPD’s leaders therefore know that by walking out of the coalition they would lose. They would not only lose their plush jobs as cabinet ministers and honchos, but also many seats in the Bundestag, which for some individual Social Democrats would mean they would not return at all. I believe that this will predispose them to staying in their unhappy marriage with the Union until 2021. Unfortunately, this inertia probably also condemns Germany to several more years of unambitious muddling ­through, without any major reform.

Implications for Future Legislative Terms

Whether the election comes early or in 2021, everything suggests that the next chancellor will again belong to the CDU, and will probably be Ms. Kramp­-Karrenbauer. That is because, as in the current Bundestag, the three left parties will almost certainly fall short of a majority of seats, and no party will partner with the AfD. By contrast, a black-­green coalition may well clear 50 percent even without the FDP.

A clique of senior Christian Democrats and Greens known as “the pizza connection” (apparently because they used to meet over that dish) have been gathering for years to prepare for such a momentous event. Others are skeptical because the two parties appear, programmatically, to be further apart than even the CDU and SPD.

Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens tend to come from the same families—in effect, the educated upper middle class.

But I believe the chances of a coalition between the Union and the Greens are far better. They have been governing well together in Baden-­Württemberg and Hesse. And they have a demographic affinity, illustrated by the unscientific “dinner­ table test.” As Manfred Güllner, one of Germany’s best pollsters, has described, Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens tend to come from the same families—in effect, the educated upper middle class. At a given family’s dinner, dad might vote CDU/CSU, mom and sis Green, and bro FDP (or vice versa). This explains, first, the almost Freudian passions when these partisans argue. It also explains, second, why they would eventually work it out and stay together.

Implications for Foreign and Migrant Policy

Such a black-­green coalition could mark a departure for German policy, which has stalled in recent years. Ms. Merkel has been adept at managing crises but remiss at pushing reforms. A new coalition under a new chancellor could change that. Even so, there are limits to what German society will tolerate.

Climate Change and Energy

One obvious area where policy would change is anything to do with climate change, the environment, and energy. For the Greens, this is the core of their brand. For the Union, it is part of its unfinished legacy, ever since Ms. Merkel’s rash exit out of nuclear power after Fukushima. It is conceivable that black­-green would accelerate Germany’s exit from coal-­fired power generation. It is also likely that the Greens would pressure the Union to stop coddling Germany’s carmakers, and start leaning on them to reduce their emissions more drastically (and to stop cheating on tests).

Migration

On migration, a black­-green combination, though strange at first sight, might lead to a sane and modern immigration regime. As noted above, the Union, and Ms. Kramp­-Karrenbauer in particular, has of late been talking tough on migration while legislating to attract more skilled workers from abroad. The Greens, for their part, insist on keeping the doors open and emphasize integrating foreigners better into German society, and simultaneously letting German society become more colorful and diverse. In a joint government, they would not be able to defuse this hot-­button issue. But they might be able to channel migration policy onto a moderate and modern course, not unlike Canada’s, say.

Eurozone

The implications for eurozone and EU policy are less clear. The Union and FDP are the most strident opponents of any form of risk sharing within the eurozone (as part of a common deposit insurance scheme for banks, for example), fearing that any such step inevitably leads to a “transfer union” akin to the unpopular one Germany has domestically. By contrast, the Greens are clearly the most “pro-­European” party, and the party most sympathetic to “southern” opinions in the eurozone (such as calls for mutually guaranteed bonds or a larger common budget). Emmanuel Macron in Paris should certainly be saying a daily prayer for black­-green.

Foreign Policy

The implications for Germany’s wider foreign policy are even less clear. The Christian Democrats have always been more Atlanticist than the SPD. The Greens, meanwhile, in stark contrast to the Russophile SPD and The Left, have also been talking quite tough about Vladimir Putin’s transgressions in Ukraine. Though pacifist in their bearing and iconography, the Greens, through their moralism, could potentially be persuaded to adopt Realpolitik and a bigger contribution to NATO. They would be more likely than the Social Democrats to join the Union in locating Germany within a cultural and geostrategic “West,” also vis-à-vis China.

But a major shift in German foreign policy is unlikely, barring a disastrous international crisis, such as war. As Thomas Bagger (formerly in Germany’s foreign ministry, now working for President Steinmeier) has argued eloquently, Germans have, since the Berlin Wall fell, succumbed to a canon of naive assumptions, in effect denying the reality of naked power in world politics and betting everything on a multilateralism that does not exist as such. When it comes to answers to the world’s biggest problems, Germans are at a loss in all parties.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Andreas Kluth

Andreas Kluth is the former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global. Prior to joining Handelsblatt, he spent 20 years as a correspondent for The Economist in London, Hong Kong, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Berlin.