Germany’s political parties — what you need to know

Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CSU)

Color: Black

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

Parliamentary leader: Ralph Brinkhaus (CDU)

Membership: 405,816

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%

2017 Bundestag election result: 33% (246/709 seats)

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 Bavaria sister-party, the 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 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: Angela Merkel was party leader from 2000 to 2018 and has been chancellor since 2005. She stood for both a continuation and a break from the CDU’s traditional values. German voters trusted her to steward the economy safely. She maintained certain conservative social values, such as opposition to same-sex marriage (though she voted against it herself, she ushered in gay marriage at the end of the last legislative period by sanctioning a conscience vote in the Bundestag). However, her relatively liberal stance on immigration turned much of the CDU base against her.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel has become a near-mythological political figure outside of Europe, her popularity at home, however, has waxed and waned in recent years. Merkel announced in October 2018 she would not put herself up for renewed terms as CDU chairwoman or as chancellor. Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer, known by many as AKK, took over the reins after a tight inner-party vote. She stepped down and was succeeded by Armin Laschet in 2021.

The CDU/CSU experienced a historic loss in the 2019 European election, as some voters apparently punished the bloc for its failure to prioritize climate and environmental policy, while others drifted to the right-wing nationalist AfD.

Preferred coalition partners: FDP, SPD, Greens

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%

2017 Bundestag election result: 20.5% (153/709 seats)

Membership: 419,340

Voters: The SPD has traditionally been the party of the working classes and the trade unions. 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 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. Though its reach has eroded significantly in the past few years, it was still behind some of Merkel’s most significant social reform policies during her third government, which has just ended.

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

Platform: The SPD’s best suit has always been social policy. It stands for a strong social infrastructure. In 2015, the SPD was instrumental in introducing a national minimum wage in Germany — currently €9.35 ($11.26) an hour.

Nevertheless, the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s lost the party some traditional support, and it’s no accident that Martin Schulz’s candidacy in the 2017 general election was marked by a “correction” of the policy, and a new emphasis on social justice and tax redistribution — though that failed to help him. The September 2017 election saw the worst result for the SPD in the party’s history, and its support has dwindled further.

Even so, the SPD agreed to continue as junior partner in government with the CDU/CSU bloc, though it led to painful concessions that alienated traditional voters. As both chairperson and parliamentary leader, Andrea Nahles, the first woman to lead the party, struggled to turn around the SPD’s bad luck at the polls and win back voter confidence. She ultimately failed and resigned after the party’s disastrous showing in European elections in May 2019 — its worst-ever result in a national election in the postwar era, leaving it in third place behind the Greens.

Preferred coalition partners: Greens, CDU — the Left, but only at the state level

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%

2017 Bundestag election result: 8.9% (67/709 seats)

Membership: 101,560

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. The waxing and waning of support for the Greens tends to mirror the popularity of the larger parties, the CDU and SPD. On that score, the Greens saw a massive uptick in support in the 2019 European election, especially from young voters driven by concerns about climate change not assuaged by other parties.

History: The Green party is probably the most successful counter-culture movement in Germany’s postwar political 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.

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 junior coalition partner to Gerhard Schröder’s SPD, and supplied his government with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Platform: Political pundits tend to divide the Greens between the “Realos” and the “Fundis” —- the “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 Realos have slowly taken control of the party, to the extent that it is now leading a coalition with the conservative CDU in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. While environmentalism remains a core cause (agriculture reform was a key Green achievement in the early 2000s), it has also pushed a leftist agenda on tax and social policy.

Preferred coalition partner: SPD, CDU

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 (TV coverage often uses magenta to distinguish it from the SPD)

Chairpeople: Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, Janine Wissler

Parliamentary leaders: Amira Mohamed Ali Dietmar Bartsch

2019 European election result: 5.5%

2017 Bundestag election result: 9.2% (69/709 seats)

Membership: 61,500

Voters: The Left party’s stronghold remains the “new German states” in the former East, where its voters tend to be 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 in the past couple years.

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.

The Left party was formed out of a merger of the SED successor, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and Labor and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a western German movement of trade unionists and disgruntled SPD members alienated by the welfare cuts introduced by Gerhard Schröder. The most prominent of these defectors was Schröder’s first finance minister and SPD chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, who later led the Left party and is still a prominent figure guiding the party from his Saarland base.

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

Preferred coalition partners: SPD, Greens

Parliamentary leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel are two of the AfD’s most prominent spokespeople

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Color: Light blue

Chairpeople: Jörg Meuthen, Tino Chrupalla

Parliamentary leaders: Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel

Membership: 35,000

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 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 right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has surged to prominence in the eight years of its existence. Founded just five months before the 2013 election as a euroskeptic party, the AfD very nearly entered the Bundestag. Since then, Germans have elected the AfD to 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 a power struggle in 2015 ended with the ouster of party leader Bernd Lucke, who was replaced by Frauke Petry.

Petry, along with other prominent figures, set a much more overtly nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam agenda, a policy that scored some success during the refugee crisis of 2015. Eventually Petry also left the party, seemingly in protest at the far-right extremist turn the party took in the run-up to the 2017 election.

Björn Höcke represents the party’s extreme right wing

Since then, parliamentary leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel have become leading figures in the AfD, particularly with their diligent attendance at parliamentary sessions — the AfD is currently the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

Much discussion has flared up over prominent figures at the extreme end of the party. Most notably Björn Höcke, AfD leader in the state of Thuringia, whose uses of Nazi-era rhetoric, or statements minimizing the Nazi era, made headlines. He is one of the figureheads of what was known as the “Wing,” the name of the AfD’s hardcore section that the party itself banned last year when domestic intelligence announced plans to keep tabs on it.

Platform: The AfD wants to seal the EU’s borders, institute rigorous identity checks along Germany’s borders, and set up holding camps abroad 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.

Preferred coalition partners: Ruled out by all other parties, but closest in policy to the CSU

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

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Color: Yellow

Chairperson: Christian Lindner

Parliamentary leader: Christian Lindner

2019 European election result: 5.4%

2017 Bundestag election result: 10.7% (80/709 seats)

Membership: 65,500

Voters: As the party of neo-liberal free enterprise, it’s no surprise that the FDP has found the most voters among the self-employed, especially business owners and professionals like dentists and lawyers — and the fewest among workers.

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 has struggled for relevance ever since, but then experienced a resurgence under new leader Christian Lindner, and reentered parliament with some 80 Bundestag members.

Founded in December 1948, the FDP was kingmaker to both the CDU and the SPD in its time. Though it never led a German government, it participated in 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.

Platform: The FDP’s program is founded on the principles of individual freedom and civil rights. While it has always campaigned for more tax cuts, it opposes leaving the financial markets unbridled. It is also a pro-European party.

Preferred coalition partner: CDU