From the CDU, SPD and FDP to Germany’s Pirate Party, here’s a guide on what you need to know to follow German politics.
Germany is a federal parliamentary republic. Unlike the United States or France, the president does not hold the power – instead, the legislative federal power is held by the Bundestag (German Parliament).
All parliamentary members are responsible for voting for and passing bills.
Then there’s the Bundesrat – a federal council representing Germany’s 16 länder or federal states. This operates rather like the UK’s House of Lords or the US Senate, as it also has to vote for and pass some bills.
Both sit in Berlin: the Bundestag in the Reichtstag Building; the Bundesrat in the Bundesrat.
The Head of State/president the Bundespräsident, elected every 5 years by the Bundestag and state delegates, has a largely ceremonial role. Frank-Walter Steinmeier has held the position since 2017.
The Bundeskanzler (Chancellor) is the Head of Government, elected by and responsible to the Bundestag usually for a four-year term, is almost always the leader of the largest party. Angela Merkel has been the Chancellor since 2005; she is the first female Chancellor in Germany and is in her fourth term in office.
There are two major political parties in Germany: the CDU and the SPD, but neither can easily achieve a parliamentary majority in an election.
There are several more minor but still important parties, too – the CSU (the sister party to the CDU), the FDP, the Alliance ‘90/Green Party and the Left Party.
Since 1966, all federal governments have been formed of at least two parties. Currently, the CDU is in power in a coalition with the FDP. So what do these acronyms – and the parties themselves – stand for?
The centre-right CDU – Christlich-Demokratische Union Deutschlands, or Christian Democratic Union of Germany – is Germany’s main conservative party.
Growing out of the now defunct catholic Centre Party, which dated back to 1870, the CDU was founded after the end of World War II. The party believes in conservative social values and a social market economy (a free market whilst ensuring social equity). It also strongly believes in European integration, and NATO membership.
Its support traditionally comes from the mainly Catholic areas in south-west and western regions of the country, but these days support also comes from people with different or no religious faiths. In fact, Angela Merkel – the leader of the CDU and the current Chancellor of Germany – is a Protestant who was raised in the former East Germany.
The CSU, Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern or Christian Social Union of Bavaria party, is the sister party to the CDU.
While the two parties are in agreement for most issues, the CSU is generally more socially conservative than the CDU.
It’s a national political party, but it stands only in Bavaria. It was founded in 1945 and since 1949 has governed Bavaria, with the exception of 1950-53. Markus Soder is the leader.
Together, the CDU and CSU are sometimes called the Union Parties, or the Union. They share a youth wing called Junge Union Deutschlands (Young Union), or JU.
The centre-left SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or Social Democratic Party of Germany) grew out of the 19th-century labour movement and was originally a Marxist party.
Founded in 1875, it is Germany’s oldest political party. Traditionally representing the working classes, unsurprisingly, much of its support comes from the large, mainly protestant cities in Northern Germany and the industrial cities of the Ruhr.
In recent years, it has made efforts to attract the middle classes. The party platform is social democracy, believing in a strengthened social market economy, a welfare state, civil rights and European integration.
Until the last decade, it was the biggest party in the Federal Republic, but it lost voters when the SPD chancellor made welfare cuts in the early 2000s, and later when the Left Party was formed. However, the SPD has been part of the Grand Coalition with the CDU and CSU since 2013. The current leader of the SPD is Andrea Nahles.
The Freie Demokratische Partei or Free Democratic Party (FDP) is a liberal party, which believes in both economic and social liberalism.
This means it supports a free market economy, civil liberties, human rights and internationalism. Over time it has shifted from the centre to the centre-right.
Founded in 1948, it has been the junior partner in coalitions with both of the major parties and, as such, has actually been in power for longer than any other party. It’s currently lead by Christian Lindner.
Alliance ‘90/Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) was formed in 1993 with the merger of the ecology Green Party and the eastern German Alliance ‘90.
Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock are the leaders of the party. Originally, the environment and pacificism were cornerstone issues, but when the Green Party joined the Federal government in coalition with the SDP in 1998, it dropped the latter, supporting the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo, and the US-led attack on Afghanistan two years later.
Alternative energy, sustainable development and a green transport policy are high on the party’s agenda. Support seems to come mainly from higher income city dwellers.
Die Linke (the Left Party) was formed in 2007 when the successor to the communist party ruling East Germany – the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) – merged with the trade unionists and left-wing breakaway SPD members of the Labour and Social Justice Party (WASG).
It’s the most left-wing (and fourth largest) party in the Bundestag and headed up by co-chairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger. It works towards all the usual left-wing ideals to overcome capitalism including: increased government public spending and more taxes for corporations and high earners. Many voters are from the older generation
Other political parties
There are three far right parties: The neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands or National Democratic Party (NPD), the nationalist Deutsche Volksunion or German People’s Union (DVU) and Die Republikaner (The Republicans).
Die Piratenpartei Deutschland (The Pirate Party of Germany) broke through into national politics in 2011, winning several seats at state level on a platform of internet freedom, political transparency and other contemporary issues (but not many policies on all the other usual important things like tax and the economy).
Their popularity seems to be diminishing and so far they have failed to win a seat at federal level.