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Colorful Coalitions

Klaus Dahmann (jen)
February 11, 2009

For a long time, black, red, and yellow were the favorite colors of the German political spectrum. Next came Green, and now dark red. Germany -- a rainbow of ideologies.

Banners for SPD, FDP and Greens together, symbolizing a coalition
In Germany, political parties mix and match to form a coalitionImage: dpa - Report

From Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is the party that has most frequently given Germany its chancellors.

After World War II, their constituency was mostly made up of people from the Catholic-oriented German Center Party. Their color was black -- not to be seen pessimistically. Both parties carry the word “Christian” in their name, and in the party spectrum they are considered conservative.

Traditional ideals

Traditionally, the parties stand for Christian-influenced ideals. As a political party, they generally seek a wide consensus among the populace. Up to now, they have preferred having the libertarian FDP, the Free Democrat Party, as their coalition partners. If they have to, they will also join the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in what is known as a “grand coalition.” On a federal level, that first took place at the end of the 1960s, and now again since 2005.

Bavarian leader Seehofer with a shadow of FDP leader Westerwelle
The CSU historically has ruled with the FDPImage: AP/picture alliance/dpa/DW

Occasionally, however, the SPD has led the country. Social Democrats have had chancellors like Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and most recently, Gerhard Schroeder. Their official red color is a reference to the party’s roots in workers’ movements in the second half of the 19th century. The SPD already existed under the same name in the Weimar era. But like all other parties at the time, it was banned by the National Socialists, or Nazis. Many SPD members wound up in concentration camps.

SPD changes course

After the war, the SPD was troubled by internal ideological squabbling. In its Godesberg Program, agreed in 1959, the SPD foreswore Marxist ideals and turned from being a socialist workers' party to a social democratic one. As a result, it became more attractive to a wide range of voters. Today, the SPD is the second-largest party in Germany, stressing social justice and workers' rights in its platform.

Symbols of black and red together, SPD and CDU
The 2008 variation: an SPD-CDU grand coalitionImage: Fotomontage/DW

Until the middle of the 1980s, the Social Democrats could only form coalitions with the FDP and, as it did in the 1960s, with the CDU/CSU. During the 1980s, however, a new political party broke onto the German political scene: the Greens. Their roots are in the peace movement of the 1970s, as well as the women’s movment and various grassroots movements. Their platform has historically been based on environmental protection and gender equality.

Greens join the fray

Slowly, the Greens and SPD began trying out alliances on a local and state level, until at last they joined to lead the federal government in a Red-Green coalition under Gerhard Schroeder.

Occasionally, Black-Green coalitions are formed on a state or local level.

Angela Merkel, Guido Westerwelle and Joschka Fischer before their parties' representative colors
A mix of CDU, FPD and Green is known as a 'Jamaica' coalitionImage: Fotomontage/AP Graphics/DW

Since the advent of the Greens, FDP (whose official color is yellow) is no longer the only party that can tip the scales for a decisive alliance with either the SPD or CDU. Until the 1990s, it was the junior partner in nearly every government, but that has stopped being the case.

The FDP stands for economic liberalism and opposes strong government regulation. They often represent the interest of small and midsize businesses, and are frequently seen as the “party of the wealthy.”

Far-left raises troubling questions

The state of Berlin is currently run by an unusual Red-Red coalition; a joining of the SPD and the Left Party -- a party that is even further left wing than the Social Democrats. For years now, there has been internal party strife in the SPD about what the party’s relationship with the Left Party should be.

The problem is the Left’s origins: they developed out of what was once the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED). Initially upon reunification, its members formed the Democratic Socialist Party, or PDS, which is frequently criticized for its personal and ideological ties to the old East German police-state regime under the Stasi.

On the other hand, the western roots of the Left Party come from a splinter party from the SPD: the WASG (Voters’ Initiative for Social Justice.) Recently, the PDS and WASG joined together to form the Left Party. It focuses on social inequality and aims to stand up for the “man in the street.” It also has a radically pacifist standpoint.

The ongoing success of extreme right-wing parties continues to garner attention. Of these, one of the most visible is the NPD (German National Democratic Party.) As early as the 1960s, they got enough votes to pass the 5 percent hurdle and have therefore been represented in several state parliaments. They currently have a seat in Saxony’s parliament, where they cause frequent scandals.