In German Politics, Small is Beautiful | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.09.2005
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In German Politics, Small is Beautiful

The country's big parties were the big losers in Sunday's elections. And in their efforts to look for coalition partners, they'd be well served to look for inspiration abroad, say experts.


Small parties, like the Left Party (l), put up some big numbers

It seems that the guiding principle of the German voter might just be "small is beautiful."

The dismal showing of the two major parties, the Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democratic Union, in Sunday's election was offset by the impressive gains made by smaller parties, like the Left Party and the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The CDU alone lost an estimated 1.1 million voters to the Free Democrats, many of whom gave their vote to the FDP in order to ensure a coalition between the CDU and FDP.

Observers in other countries are already beginning to talk of a Europe-wide trend spelling the end of the continent's major parties. The liberal Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter attributes the gains of the smaller parties to the "luxury" of the choice given voters in major European countries. Things are going relatively well on the continent, allowing voters to pick and choose which party gives them the most and takes away the least.

German election experts attribute the success of the Left Party, which promised voters a light version of economic reform, to this phenomenon.

Big parties failed to convince

But not all are willing to see a trend. Oskar Niedermayer, a professor of political science at Free University in Berlin, said that the CDU and SPD's poor performance "does not call for any doomsday scenarios."

Symbolbild Kleine Parteien ganz groß

The Greens, FDP (yellow), and Left Party (violet), have made life complicated for Germany's big two

Niedermayer sees the major parties' poor performance in Sunday's election as a Germany-specific situation.

"Both major parties failed to convince the voters that the social market economy can no longer be supported," he said.

The sooner the two parties begin articulating their plans for reform and do so in a way that emphasizes the necessity for change, the sooner they'll bounce back, said Niedermayer.

No longer a class-struggle

This year's election proved to be a reincarnation of a decades-old German political battle. But what was once called "class struggle" is now a battle over the future of the social market economy. Back then it was the difference between labor and capital, today, it's the dispute over neo-liberal economic solutions to reforming the economic system.

The change in context has led German voters to throw their support behind smaller parties, argues Martin Morlok, director of the Institute for German and European Party Research.

"They'll vote for a smaller party, that has specialized in a certain area and represents a more extreme position than a larger party with a grab bag of offers," said Morlok.

"The Left Party, compared to the SPD, can take an extreme position on the topic of social justice," in the economic reform plans, added Niedermayer.

Wahl Fernsehduell Merkel - Schröder Live in Fernsehen

Merkel and Schröder failed to convince voters they alone had the answer to Germany's problems

The lesson from Belgium and Holland

Germany's political establishment has also proven itself to be the exception when it comes to it willingness to overcome traditional positions in forming coalitions. The FDP's current refusal to even consider a coalition with the Social Democrats is evidence of such, experts say, dated behavior.

"In other European countries, they are much more relaxed, and less squeamish," said Morlok.

Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose party is similar to Germany's FDP, led a coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens until his re-election in 2003. Since, he's led a coalition with just the Social Democrats. In the Netherlands, the Social Democrats and neo-liberal party governed for 20 years until 2002.

Germany's political leadership would be well-served to follow the lead of other countries, say the election experts. "By committing themselves to just one coalition partner, the major parties have unnecessarily limited their possibilities," said Niedermayer.

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