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A look at Germany's political parties

Rina Goldenberg

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

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Image: Florian Gaertner/photothek/imago images

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

Color: BlackBlue

Chairpeople: Friedrich Merz (CDU), Markus Söder(CSU)

Parliamentary leader: Friedrich Merz (CDU) 

Party Secretary General: Carsten Linnemann (CDU) Martin Huber (CSU)

Membership: CDU 371,000 (2022) CSU 130.000 (2022)

Markus Söder and Friedrich Merz holding up their clenched hands
CSU leader Markus Söder and CDU leader Friedrich Merz have been demonstrating unityImage: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Voter base: The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its regional Bavarian "sister party", the Christian Social Union (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%)

History: The CDU was founded in West Germany in 1950 in the aftermath ofWorld 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 most of that time, 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. Chancellor Angela Merkel (2005-2021) positioned the party towards the center-left.

Platform: The CDU/CSU pledge to reduce corporate taxes and benefit high-income earners.

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.

The CDU/CSU wants Germany to play a leading role in world affairs. They see Europe and the United States as Germany's traditional partners. 

Preferred coalition partner:  FDP

Kevin Kühnert, Olaf Scholz, Saskia Esken, Lars Klingbeil
Kevin Kühnert, Olaf Scholz, Saskia Esken, Lars Klingbeil standing together in 2023Image: Frederic Kern/Future Image/IMAGO

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Color: Red

Chairpeople:  Saskia Esken, Lars Klingbeil

Party General Secretary: Kevin Kühnert

Parliamentary leader: Rolf Mützenich

2019 European election result: 15.8%

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

Membership: 380,000 (December 2022)

Voter base: The center-left Social Democrat SPD has traditionally been the party of the working classes and the trade unions. Like the CDU it has an aging 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. He was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt, an SPD icon until his death in 2015. Both remain hugely respected figures in German politics. SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder headed a government with the Greens from 1998 to 2005. The SPD spent years in coalition with CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel before taking over the reins in 2021 heading a coalition with the Greens and the FDP.

Willy Brandt und Helmut Schmidt
SPD icons Willy Brandt (l) and Helmut Schmidt both served as German chancellorsImage: picture-alliance / Klaus Rose

Platform: The SPD's core issue has always been social policy such as a minimum wage. The SPD aims to tax the rich while easing the tax burden on low and medium-earners. 

Nevertheless, the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s introduced welfare cuts 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 it 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.

Preferred coalition partner: Green Party

Annalena Baerbock, Omid Nouripour, Ricarda Lang
Omid Nouripour and Ricarda Lang (r) took over als Green Party co-chairs in February 2022Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Green Party

Color: Green

Chairpeople: Ricarda Lang, Omid Nouripour

Parliamentary leaders: Britta Hasselmann,  Katharina Dröge

2019 European election result: 20.5% 

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

Membership: 126.000 (2022)

Voters: The environmentalist 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 (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) translates as Alliance '90/The Greens, grew out of an assortment of social protest movements of the 1980s that eventually unified.

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. 

Annalena Baerbock, who was the party's candidate for chancellor in the 2021 general election became the country's prominent and popular Foreign Minister. Robert Habeck became Vice-Chancellor and heads the Economy and Climate Change Ministry.

Germany's Baerbock: 'Using hunger as a weapon is shocking'

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: Ranging from the phase-out of combustion engines in cars to renewable energy to create electricity and heating.

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

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Color: Yellow

Chairperson: Christian Lindner

Parliamentary leader: Christian Dürr

Party General Secretary: Bijan Djir-Sarai 

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 Free Democrat 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 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

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 technologies and it has promised to accelerate Germany's sluggish digitalization drive.

The party's program is founded on the principles of individual freedom and civil rights. It has always campaigned for more tax cuts. The FDP opposes expropriations, rent control, or rent caps and wants to see an increase in owner-occupied homes.

The FDP wants more privatization, opposes a speed limit on the autobahn, and believes that technology will sort out the adverse effects of climate change. 

It would like to introduce a statutory equity pension based on the Swedish model rather than prop up the current pension system from the state coffers. 

The FDP is 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 party is critical of Russia and China and supports Germany's partnership with the United States and its role in the European Union.. 

Preferred coalition partner: CDU

Martin Schirdewan and Janine Wissler
Left Party co-chairs Martin Schirdewan and Janine Wissler are fighting for the party's existenceImage: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance

Left Party

Color: Red (magenta)

Chairpeople: Martin Schirdewan, Janine Wissler

2019 European election result: 5.5%

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

Membership: 51.000 (2022)

Voter base: 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 higher minimum wage and to lower the retirement age and introduce a "solidarity minimum pension" financed through tax revenue, paid for by tax increases for the very rich.

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 AfDImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Color: Light blue

Chairpeople: Tino Chrupalla, Alice Weidel

Parliamentary leaders: Tino Chrupalla, Alice Weidel

Membership: 41,000 (2024)

Voter base: 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%

2021 Bundestag election result: 10,3%

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.

Platform: The AfD wants to prevent refugees from heading to Germany at all. The party wants to immediately deport anyone whose application for political asylum is rejected.

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, wants to uphold family values and opposes diversity and gender issues.

The AfD wants to limit NATO's operational area to the territory of its member states and replace the EU with a new organization.

Sahra Wagenknecht
Sahra Wagenknecht's BSW party became the 'new kid on the bloc' in 2024Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Bündnis Sarah Wagenknecht (BSW)

Chairpeople: Sahra Wagenknecht, Amira Mohamed Ali 

Membership: 450 (Feb 2024)

Voter base: Former Left Party and former AfD supporters.

History: Founded in 2024 by Left Party renegades

Platform: The Sarah Wagenknecht Alliance is left-wing on economic issues: social justice, job security, higher wages, generous benefits and a revamped tax system. Close to the far-right on issues like immigration and gender diversity. Foreign policy: Opposition to NATO and to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and support for Ukraine. Climate policy: Opposes the shift toward renewable energy.

BSW has explicitly not ruled out cooperating with the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

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