In mainstream analyses of the German political system, the emergence of the Left Party (Die Linke) is presented as an unexpected consequence of German unification and as an indication of the existence of an East-West divide. This view is for the most part based on the idea that German unification is a process of political integration of the East into the West. Such an understanding, however, downplays the long-term developments in the German party system. This article examines the emergence of the Left Party in light of both the long-term developmental tendencies of the German party system and findings from comparative studies among other West European countries. The article concludes that the main reason for the current political stalemate is the incapability of the postwar Volksparteien to respond to changes in political space and action. Based on evidence from comparative studies, the article also suggests a pragmatic rethinking especially in the SPD is necessary in dealings with the Left Party.
Russell J. Dalton and Willy Jou
Few aspects of politics have been as variable as partisan politics in the two decades since German unification. In the East, citizens had to learn about democratic electoral politics and the party system from an almost completely fresh start. In the West, voters experienced a changing partisan landscape and the shifting policy positions of the established parties as they confronted the challenges of unification. This article raises the question of whether there is one party system or two in the Federal Republic. We first describe the voting results since 1990, and examine the evolving links between social milieu and the parties. Then we consider whether citizens are developing affective party ties that reflect the institutionalization of a party system and voter choice. Although there are broad similarities between electoral politics in West and East, the differences have not substantially narrowed in the past two decades.
Steven Weldon and Andrea Nüsser
Although characterized by widespread public apathy and record low voter turnout, the 2009 Bundestag election solidified a stable, but fluid five-party system that will likely be a defining feature of German political life for the next generation. The three minor parties each achieved historical bests at the polls with steep losses for the two traditional Volksparteien. Drawing on data from the German Longitudinal Electoral Study (GLES), this article examines the nature of this new five-party system with a closer look at each party's voters in the 2009 election. The analysis shows the breadth and stability of the five-party system—each party draws significant support across all sixteen Länder; and, despite a growing number of swing voters, each party has a core group of committed voters that alone exceeds the 5 percent national electoral threshold. We also find evidence that the increased volatility and fluidity of the party system is structured along the left-right ideological spectrum with the parties divided into two major camps and vote-switching much more likely within the respective camps rather than between them.
The article draws upon the formal coalition literature to demonstrate that party system change over the last thirty years means that the Volksparteien enjoy more coalition options and greater ideological leverage within coalitions that form than was the case in the past. The Free Democrats have lost their kingmaker status and the distribution of party weights over recent elections allows no other small party to act in this manner. By contrast, the numerical and ideological resources possessed by the two Volksparteien means that they remain the only parties within the German party system that can act as formateur in the coalition game and are less vulnerable to threats of a decisive defection by small parties to alternative coalitions than they were in the past.
Frank Decker and Jared Sonnicksen
The recent Bundestag election in Germany warrants consideration for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the results are indicative of several trends developing since unification and that will continue to play an important, if not ever increasing role in German politics. These developments include the intensifying fragmentation of the German party system and German voters' growing electoral volatility, both of which are hampering the parties' ability to form government coalitions. In the following article, we distill five fundamental aspects of the election. Building upon this analysis, we explore their meaning as well as potential impact on the German party system and partisan competition, as well as coalition patterns. At the same time, we address the overarching question of whether—and if so, to what extent—German politics is experiencing a trend toward bipolarity between a center-right and left camp and whether such an antagonistic model will be a passing phase or is indicative of a more established five-party system in Germany.
David P. Conradt
While the 2009 election resulted in a familiar governing coalition, the dealignment of the party systems continued. Support for the once-major parties dropped to historic lows as did turnout. This article delves into the factors underlying this dealignment process. In addition to familiar demandside variables—social structure, values, and interests—particular attention is given to the supply side of the dealignment equation: the role of the parties, their leaders, strategies, and policies. The consequences of these changes for the future of the party and political system are then discussed in a comparative context.
The eighteenth Bundestag elections of 22 September 2013 brought important changes to the Bundestag party system, some of which are contingent but others of which are more systemic and profound. The narrow failure of the FDP to scale the electoral threshold has had an impact on coalition negotiations and the improvement in the overall vote share for the CDU/CSU and the SPD, for the first time since the 1960s represents a significant, if probably only temporary, concentration of the German party system in the Bundestag. More systemically, the election saw a continuation of the ongoing redistribution of voting power in the Bundestag in favor of the catch-all parties as formateurs. The article also discusses how the increased importance of the potential formateuer parties has gone hand-in-hand with a greater focus on the individual leading candidates, and concludes that this is particularly good news for the CDU/CSU, given the political qualities of Angela Merkel and the failure of the SPD to find and support a leading candidate that can match her political acumen.
The success of the Five Star Movement, with its anti-political and populist challenge to the establishment, did not lead to multipolar competition. Rather, it furthered a moderate bipolar party system dynamic between the center-left and center-right. Although it lost millions of votes, the center-right fared relatively well, allowing Silvio Berlusconi to regain a relevant position in the party-political game. Although stripped of his seat and expelled from the Chamber following a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi realized, thanks also to the election of centrist Matteo Renzi as the new secretary of the Democratic Party (PD), that it would suit him better to moderate his claims. This new development may lead to an unexpected alliance between the PD and Berlusconi's revived personal party, Forza Italia, and may perhaps result in regaining the electorate lost to the M5S.
David P. Conradt
This article develops the thesis that the past quarter-century of electoral volatility in Germany reached a critical tipping point at the 2005 election. The two major parties of the Bonn Republic are now at their lowest combined share of the popular vote since the Federal Republic's founding in 1949. Electoral necessity and not, as in 1966, elite choice forced them into a grand coalition with little programmatic consensus. Their respective demographic cores-church-going Catholics for the CDU and unionized industrial workers for the SPD-have eroded as has the proportion of the electorate identifying with them. Institutional factors such as the electoral system have neither helped nor hindered these changes. The current grand coalition also faces a larger and more focused opposition than in 1966. The article concludes with some comparisons between the current German party system and its Italian counterpart of the late 1980s.
The recent federal elections refuted a number of established hypotheses on the development of the German party system and contradicted the electoral strategies of nearly all parties involved. The outcome was neither a further fragmentation of the parliamentary landscape nor the unavoidable establishment of a grand coalition. On the contrary, in most cases, the respective parties failed as a result of their own mistakes in selecting adequate campaign issues, strategies and/or candidates. Aside from party-specific questions, such as the trajectories of both the AfD and the FDP, the future of the German party system seems largely dependent on the relationships between the three left-of-center parties at the federal level.