Germany′s political parties — what you need to know | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.10.2021

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Germany's political parties — what you need to know

Here's a look at Germany's political parties — CDU, CSU, SPD, AfD, FDP, Left party, Greens — who they are and what they want.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU)

Color: Black

Chairpeople: Armin Laschet (CDU), Markus Söder(CSU)

Parliamentary leader: Ralph Brinkhaus (CDU) 

Membership: CDU 400,000 (2020) CSU 140.000 (2019)

Voters: The CDU/CSU are popular with people over the age of 60, churchgoers, and those living in rural rather than urban areas. The CDU has also traditionally done well among small business owners and people with lower or medium education levels.

2019 European election result: 28.9%

2021 Bundestag election result: 24.1% (2017: 32.9%)

Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel, Markus Söder

Armin Laschet (l) and Markus Söder (r) head the CDU and CSU respectively. But chancellor Angela Merkel has been the dominating political figure for the German conservatives

History: The CDU was founded in West Germany in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II as a gathering pool for all of Germany's Christian conservative voters. It became the most dominant political force in the postwar era, unifying Germany and leading the government for 47 of those 67 years, alongside its "sister party," the regional Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU).

CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who governed from 1949 to 1963, is the closest the Federal Republic has to a founding father. It was Adenauer and his economy minister (and successor as chancellor), Ludwig Erhard, who presided over West Germany's "economic miracle." The party's reputation as Germany's rock of moral and economic stability continued under another long-term CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who drove German reunification in 1990 — a key historic moment important in understanding today's politics.

Standing in Paris in 1954, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stands alongside his French counterpart, Pierre Mendes, British Foreign Minister Sir Anthony Eden and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (second from left) helped rebuild Germany's political system after WWII. Under his leadership, the CDU remained the country's strongest party even after his departure in 1963

Platform: The CDU/CSU have also pledged to reduce taxes. They have proposed a number of cuts that would mainly benefit high-income earners and want to cut corporate income tax from 15% to 10%.

The CDU/CSU plans to focus on "efficient market-economy tools" to meet the Paris climate goals. They oppose introducing a speed limit on the autobahn and banning diesel fuel.

On migration, the CDU/CSU stresses its commitment to the fundamental right to asylum, but they want tighter restrictions on who can apply for asylum and they stress the need to deport refugees who have committed criminal offenses in Germany.

To solve the housing crisis the CDU/CSU wants to promote the construction of more than 1.5 million new homes in Germany by 2025 through tax relief and cutting bureaucracy, focusing on housing associations and the builders and owners of owner-occupied homes.

The CDU/CSU wants Germany to play a leading role in world affairs, and support more Bundeswehr missions abroad. They want to focus on trade, climate policy, and the fight against organized crime and terrorism with their traditional partners: Europe and the United States. China's growing influence is seen as a challenge and Russia as a possible military threat.

Most preferred coalition partner:  FDP

Norbert Walter-Borjans, Olaf Scholz und Saskia Esken

SPD chairpeople Norbert Walter-Borjans (l) and Saskia Esken (r) with candidate for chancellorship Olaf Scholz

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Color: Red

Chairpeople:  Saskia Esken, Norbert Walter-Borjans

Parliamentary leader: Rolf Mützenich

2019 European election result: 15.8%

2021 Bundestag election result: 25.7% (2017 20.5%)

Membership: 420,000 (2019)

Voters: The SPD has traditionally been the party of the working classes and the trade unions. Like the CDU it has an ageing voter base. The SPD's most fertile ground in Germany remains in the densely populated industrial regions of western Germany, particularly the Ruhr region in North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as the states of Hesse and Lower Saxony.  

History: The SPD was founded in 1875, making it Germany's oldest political party. In the tumultuous first decades of the 20th century, the party acted as an umbrella organization for a number of leftist movements, trade unionists, and communists. But with the founding of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1919, the SPD became the permanent home of the social justice reformers, rather than the revolutionaries - though that didn't stop its politicians from being sent to concentration camps during the Third Reich.

The SPD's first postwar chancellor, Willy Brandt, governed West Germany from 1969 to 1974. He earned an international reputation for reconciliation with Eastern Europe during his time as foreign minister in a CDU-led coalition government. He was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt, an SPD icon until his death in 2015. Both remain hugely respected figures in German politics. Altogether, the party has been part of the German government for 34 of the 67 years of the Federal Republic and led governing coalitions for 21 of those. It was behind some of Merkel's most significant social reform policies during her grand coalition government from 2013 to 2021.

Willy Brandt und Helmut Schmidt

SPD icons Willy Brandt (l) and Helmut Schmidt both served as German chancellors

Platform: The SPD's core issue has always been social policy: It pushed through the current minimum wage of 9.35€ and wants it increased to 12€ ($14), it wants to introduce a minimum old-age pension to be topped up with additional state revenue. The SPD wants to introduce a wealth tax of 1% on "very high wealth" and an easing of the tax burden on low and medium earners. To balance that cut the party is discussing raising income tax to 45% on incomes over €90,000 and 48% for incomes over €250,000 (€500,000 for families.).

Nevertheless, the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s introduced welfare cuts uts known as Hartz IV, which toughened requirements for the unemployed and curbed benefits and state aid. This move split the party: SPD conservatives lauded the policy's beneficial effect on job growth, while more left-leaning factions condemned Hartz IV as inhumane and neoliberal.

The party's traditional voters — industrial workers and low-income earners — turned their backs on the SPD, and the party went through a protracted identity crisis as it teamed up with the conservatives for "grand coalition" governments, that were seen to dilute its image.

Most preferred coalition partners: Green Party

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck

Green leaders Baerbock and Habeck have benefited from the loss of support for the CDU and SPD

Green Party

Color: Green

Chairpeople: Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck

Parliamentary leaders: Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Anton Hofreiter

2019 European election result: 20.5% 

2021 Bundestag election result: 14.8% (2017 8.9%)

Membership: 120,000 (2021)

Voters: The Greens rely heavily on the well-educated, urban demographic for their voter base — party strongholds tend to be major cities in western Germany, especially where universities are located. Green voters have become more affluent over the years, and the Greens struggle to attract voters from lower-income classes. Most recently it has gained support from young voters, due to the Fridays for Future movement and the general concern over the effects of climate change.

History: The party, whose official name translates as Alliance '90/The Greens, grew out of an assortment of social protest movements of the 1980s that eventually unified.

Two long-bearded members of the Green Party sit in Germany's lower house of parliament in 1983

The Greens cleared the 5-percent hurdle by a slim margin in 1983 — to the suprise of many. Once a party associated with hippies and environmental activists, the Greens gradually became a mainstream party for the middle class

Their supporters marched for everything from ending nuclear power to gay rights — while maintaining the key plank of environmental protection. Their success lies in the fact that all of these causes have been incorporated into mainstream politics since the alliance was officially founded in 1993 (the Green Party itself was founded in 1980).

The party became truly prominent in German politics between 1998 and 2005, its time as the junior coalition partner to Gerhard Schröder's SPD, and supplied his government with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

The Greens were long divided into "realists," who are willing to compromise party aims to have a say in government, and the more left-wing "fundamentalists," who are closer to the party's counter-culture roots.

The realists have been gaining ground. The most prominent example has been Winfried Kretschmann who is leading a coalition with the conservative CDU in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. 

Platform: The Greens put an emphasis on infrastructure development and plan to finance it all through debt, with the argument that debt is less of a burden in the long run than decaying infrastructure. 

Environmental concerns remain core: Starting in 2030, the Greens want only emission-free cars to be allowed on the road and for the CO2 price per ton to rise to €60, in 2023 with relief for low-income individuals. They want to establish a network of fast train connections that would make flights within Europe redundant.

In terms of social policy, the Greens advocate a mandatory minimum pension payout subsidized through an increase in tax revenue, while a new system is established to which civil servants would also contribute. They also support a "guaranteed income," an increase in the minimum wage. They want to ease pressure on low and medium earners by raising the amount of income exempt from income tax. The difference is to be made up by raising taxes for higher earners.

In terms of foreign policy, they want a tough values-based approach that more directly criticizes China and Russia for human rights violations.

Preferred coalition partner: SPD

Watch video 02:06

Greens, FDP get boost from younger voters

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Color: Yellow

Chairperson: Christian Lindner

Parliamentary leader: Christian Lindner

2019 European election result: 5.4%

2021 Bundestag election result:  11.5% (2017 10.7%)

Membership: 75,000 (2021)

Voters: As a neo-liberal, pro-free market party, the FDP traditionally finds the most voters among the self-employed, especially business owners and professionals like dentists and lawyers. Its support from the working class is very marginal.

History: The Free Democrats were a permanent fixture in the German parliament from the early days of the Federal Republic. However, the party suffered major election losses in 2013, failing to clear the 5% hurdle to enter the lower house. It experienced a resurgence under new leader Christian Lindner.

Founded in December 1948, the FDP has been a kingmaker to both the CDU and the SPD in the past. It participated in the federal government for a total of 41 years, longer than any other party. Consequently, it provided the bigger parties with many cabinet ministers, some of whom, such as Helmut Kohl's long-term foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, became major postwar historical figures.

Christian Linder

The FDP has had difficulty proving its importance in recent elections, despite leader Christian Lindner managing to return it to the Bundestag in 2017

Platform: Personal freedom, and restricting the power of the state, have been the party's guiding principles.

The FDP wants to combat climate change by promoting new technolgies and it has promised to accelerate Germany's sluggish digitalization drive.

The FDP's program is founded on the principles of individual freedom and civil rights. It has always campaigned for more tax cuts, rejects any tax increases and is opposed to a wealth tax, as well as the tightening of inheritance tax." The FDP opposes "expropriations, rent control, or rent caps and wants to see an increase in owner-occupied homes.

The FDP wants more privatization, abolish the aviation tax and promote air traffic. The FDP rejects a speed limit on the autobahn, and its climate strategy relies heavily on technology that hasn't been invented yet. 

The FDP wants to introduce a statutory equity pension based on the Swedish model rather than prop up the current pension system from the state coffers. The party wants to introduce more generous supplementary income rules for people who receive benefits. 

The FDP is also a pro-European party and wants to enable skilled workers to migrate to Germany under a points system based on the Canadian model. War refugees are to be granted temporary protection status quickly with minimum bureaucracy and should return home swiftly after the relevant conflict has ended.

The FDP wants 3% of GDP spent on international security, including development aid and diplomacy. The party is critical of Russia and China and wants negotiations for secure trans-Atlantic data traffic. 

Most preferred coalition partner: CDU

Susanne Hennig-Wellsow and Janine Wissler

Two women head the Left party: Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, a pragmatist from the East, and Janine Wisseler, a Marxist from western Germany

Left Party

Color: Red (magenta)

Chairpeople: Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, Janine Wissler

2019 European election result: 5.5%

2021 Bundestag election result:  4.9% (2017 9.2%)

Membership: 60,350 (2020)

Voters: The Left Party's stronghold was traditionally in the former East, with former communists who supported the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and protest voters who want to express their disenchantment with traditional parties. However, many of these have switched to the populist nationalism of the AfD since 2015.

History: Though it was only founded in 2007, the Left Party has a much longer history, and is still considered a direct descendant of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled the East German GDR until reunification with the West in 1990.

Partly because of its association with the East German dictatorship, the Left remained a pariah for the other mainstream parties and has never been part of a federal government coalition — though it has some government experience at the state level.

Platform: The Left is the only major German party that rejects military missions abroad. It also wants NATO to be dissolved and the minimum wage to be raised dramatically. Some political scientists still see the Left as a radical party that ultimately seeks to overturn the capitalist economic order, but the party itself actually only advocates stronger market regulation, stronger rental caps, and more social investment.

The Left Party rejects deportations, wants to dissolve the EU border protection agency, Frontex and demands asylum for poverty, environmental, and climate refugees. It wants to give all long-term residents the right to vote and to stand for election on the federal level.

It wants a minimum wage of €13 an hour and to lower the retirement age. The party also wants to introduce a "solidarity minimum pension" of €1,200 — financed through tax revenue, and tax relief for people who earn less than €6,500 gross a month. The party wants taxes on millionaires to balance this cut.

Preferred coalition partners: SPD, Greens

Smiling Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla

The AfD's Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla have emerged as the most prominent representatives of the AfD

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Color: Light blue

Chairpeople: Jörg Meuthen, Tino Chrupalla

Parliamentary leaders: Tino Chrupalla, Alice Weidel

Membership: 32,000 (2021)

Voters: The AfD has poached voters from all the other major parties except the Greens, and has simultaneously succeeded in mobilizing many non-voters. The AfD scores best among middle-income to low-income earners — though that is by no means its exclusive voter base, and draws voters from across social classes. It is especially successful in Germany's East. Its membership, meanwhile, has one significant feature — only 17% are women.

2019 European election result: 11%

2017 Bundestag election result: 12.6% (92/709 seats)

History: The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has surged to prominence since it was founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party. Since then, Germans have elected the AfD to the federal as well as every state parliament in regional elections as well as the European parliament.

The AfD was originally created by a group of neo-liberal academics as a protest against the single European currency. They were angered specifically by Merkel's decision to bail out Greece in 2010 following Europe's financial crisis. But following the influx of refugees mainly from war-torn Syria in 2015, the party set an overtly nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam agenda.

The AfD has a powerful extremist section which the domestic intelligence service is keeping tabs on.

Björn Höcke shouting into a microphone, a German national flag waving in the background

Björn Höcke represents the party's extreme right wing

Platform: The AfD wants to prevent migrants from heading to Germany at all. The party wants to immediately deport anyone whose application for political asylum is rejected and to encourage foreigners to return to their home countries.

The party insists on the primacy of "traditional" German culture and rejects Islam as a part of German society. It also questions the notion that climate change is man-made and wants to reverse Germany's ongoing transition to renewable energy sources.

The AfD wants to stabilize the pension system with additional tax revenue provided by reduced spending on migration, climate, and EU issues.

The AfD wants to deregulate rental and construction law, to support the construction and real estate industry. A shortage in affordable housing is blamed on immigrants.

The AfD supports international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO "for the time being," but considers both a threat to the "self-determination of peoples." It wants to limit NATO's operational area to the territory of its member states and replace the EU with a new organization.

Preferred coalition partners: Ruled out by all other parties

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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