The German party landscape

I believe it's a good idea to tell foreigners a bit about the German party landscape, as it shaped and will continue to shape policy.

We had a 3-party system in the early decades of the BRD (FRG), and a 4-party system in the 80's due to the addition of the greens. Now we're at a 5-party system.
Smaller parties than these five are irrelevant on the federal level because no party can enter the Bundestag parliament with less than 5% of votes or at least several directly won district seats.

None of these five relevant parties is neonazi or fascist or nationalist.
The extreme right wing is scattered, with changing prominence of parties and their only relevant successes are below the federal level.

The parties are extremely important as the head of government (federal chancellor) is being elected or being replaced by the directly-elected parliament (congress).

(christ-democratic union / christ-social union), colour: black

One of the two largest parties, at this time strongest party on the federal level.
It considers itself as "Volkspartei" (people's party), and attempts to represent all Germans.
Part of the federal government together with its long-time competitor SPD.
Several chancellors (and the recent one) were of the CDU.
The CSU exists only in Bavaria and is the sister party of the CDU, which exists only outside of Bavaria. They are in practice a single party during federal elections and differ only slightly (but are always together in a government or opposition) after federal elections.
CSU is a bit more populist and right-wing than the CDU.

conservative, centre
A coalition with Die Linke is impossible.

(social-democratic party of Germany), colour: red

One of the two largest parties, at this time second-strongest (very much weakened recently) party on the federal level.
It considers itself as "Volkspartei" (people's party), and attempts to represent all Germans, although this is not being believed by the upper class.
Part of the federal government together with its long-time competitor CDU.
Several chancellors were SPD members.
The SPD is the oldest democratic party of Germany, it exists since the late 19th century and resisted Hitler (the conservative parties of 1933 didn't).
It turned away from a socialistic agenda (especially redistribution of wealth by redistribution of productive property) to what's being called a social-democratic agenda (redistribution of wealth by taxation and welfare) decades ago.
It moved towards the centre of the political spectrum in the 90's. This in turn caused a huge loss of members and voters recently in favour of the Die Linke.

Slightly left of centre, between Die Linke and CDU.
They deny any interest in joining coalitions with Die Linke, their new arch-enemy (due to fierce competition), but the confidence in this is generally low.

(Free democratic party), colour: yellow

One of the old three parties, traditionally rather weak (5-10% mostly).
It considers itself s liberal party, and tends to favour the interests of the wealthier Germans. They're truly liberal in justice policy (voting against domestic spying and more empowered policy quite consistently), and secretary of justice is as well as secretary for foreign affairs a classic F.D.P. slot.
The F.D.P. had joined either CDU/CSU or SPD several time to provide additional MPs for a majority in the past, but this classic swinging enabler role was lost in the 90's as neither CDU/CSU nor SPD seem to be strong enough to create a coalition with F.D.P. only on the federal level in the future.

The F.D.P. isn't well-described in terms of left/right - they're liberals and could enter coalitions with all except Die Linke. The F.D.P. is actually very close to the greens, but in fierce competition and eager to look different. It's difficult to build a coalition that includes both liberals and greens.

Bündnis90/Die Grünen, short: Grüne
(alliance 90/the greens, short: greens), colour: green, of course

The green party was originally created in early 1980 and joined with the remains of the Eastern German civil rights movement in 1993.
The greens are a small party and would need at least two coalition partners.
The established parties denied that the greens would be fit for government in the 80's, but after some participation in state governments they finally joined the Schröder government (with SPD) in the late 90's.
The greens were green-liberal-progressive-pacifist early on, but lost the pacifism edge when the SPD-greens government participated in the 1999 Kosovo war with Tornado Wild Weasel planes. Their green agenda has been accepted by all other relevant parties as well, and they stayed in the Schröder government although the SPD secretary of interior Schily (SPD) had a tough law-and-order course after 9/11.

The greens aren't well-described in terms of left/right - green, liberal.
They are open for any coalition except with Die Linke.

Die Linke
(the left), colour: red

Socialistic party. Die Linke was recently created by joining left-wing SPD deserters and the PDS (successor of the Eastern Germany socialist SED unitary party).
Die Linke is the current outcast at the federal level and also in the Western German states.
It's in a strong current upwards as it takes away voters and members of the SPD's left wing and attracts "Protestwähler" (protest voters). These protest voters are often neither left nor right, but often voted for the extreme right wing parties as they simply wanted to express their unease with the government. That's a potential of at least 5%.

Furthermore we have currently a national discussion about a growing gap between poor and rich citizens, morale failures of prominent rich citizens, unfair employment and stagnating real income of lower and middles classes that strengthens this party.

Die Linke is comparably volatile and strong in votes as greens and liberals, but it looks as if hey might establish themselves as similarly strong like SPD, ahead of greens and liberals and still significantly weaker than CDU. They united many voters in the West since the fusion, but their strongest base is in the East.

Die Linke is a socialist party, but has no chance to become strong enough to execute classic socialist policy, even if it was in a federal coalition with SPD only.

Far left, but in a democratic sense.


Possible coalitions at German federal level:

("Große Koalition" = "great coalition", the recent governing coalition. They have few common ideas left and will not form another great coalition soon)

CDU/CSU + F.D.P. + greens
("Jamaica" coalition)

SPD + F.D.P. + greens
("Ampel" = "traffic lights" coalition)

SPD + Die Linke
("Rot/Rot" = "red/red" coalition, unlikely due to their conflict and a lack of votes)

(a classic of the 3- and 4-party system time, but unlikely due to lack of votes)

CDU/CSU + greens
(2nd choice after the previous version, but unlikely due to lack of votes)


Implications for national security policy:

CDU/CSU is most likely to participate in combat missions, followed by SPD and F.D.P.
The experiences since the 90's showed that the behaviour of the parties is not predictable when multi-national (combat) missions are proposed.
The coalition type had no real significant influence on the defence budgets in the past.


I hope this showed that German federal politics are a bit complicated, especially in comparison to politics in countries like USA and UK. No federal government is a homogeneous entity, it's always a coalition. The parties have differing stances towards security policy topics and it's even conceivable that at times non-essential multinational missions might be involved in political trade-offs.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Hello Sven,

    Now, I understand that the CDU evolved out of the old Centre Party, but what was the origin of the CSU? Was there a Bavarian Centre Party autonomous of the Prussian Centre Party that the CSU derived from, or has the CSU always been the CSU?



  2. It's not relevant anymore, but apparently they trace their roots to a "BVP" - Bayrische Volkspartei, I guess. I never heard of that party, but Wikipedia remembers it...

    The Nazis shattered the old parties completely, so all post-war parties were really new creations.
    Only the left ones SPD and KPD really stuck to their roots in name and program and had the advantage that some of their members had been active in their exile during the Nazi episode.