2009 election preview: Germany


Germany goes to the polls on September 27 for a federal election to elect a new Bundestag. Germany has been governed by a grand coalition of the two major parties in German politics. Angela Merkel has served as Chancellor as leader of the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party the Bavarian Christian Social Union, and has served in coalition with the Social Democratic Party.

The grand coalition came to office after an early election in 2005 which saw the end of seven years of coalition between the SPD and the Greens, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The 2005 election saw strong support for the new Left Party, campaigning against the SPD-Green government from the left. No major party could form a coalition without the Left Party, thus forcing the major parties to govern together.

There are six political parties in German federal politics. The major right-of-centre party is technically two parties: the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union. The CSU only runs in Bavaria, where the CDU does not run, so the two parties are not in competition. The CDU/CSU is led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) is the largest left-of-centre party, and is led by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

There are also three significant minor parties, with similar levels of support and numbers of deputies in the Bundestag. The Free Democratic Party is a centre-right neoliberal party, which has existed since shortly after the Second World War and has served in federal coalition governments for 41 of the first 50 years of the post-war Federal Republic. The FDP has generally leaned towards the CDU/CSU, although they supported an SPD government from 1969 to 1982.

Germany is also home to the original Green Party, whose name was then adopted by many other Green parties around the world. The party has been in many coalition governments on state levels, mainly with the SPD but occasionally with the CDU, and was in federal government from 1998 to 2005.

The other minor party is the Left Party. The party was formed in 2007 by a merger of two parties who had campaigned together for the first time at the 2005 election. The party consists of the former PDS and WASG. PDS, or Party of Democratic Socialism, was the successor-party to the former East German governing party, and polls strongly in the East without any luck in the West. WASG split off from the SPD in 2005 out of disenchantment with the Schröder government. The Left Party is led by Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD finance minister and Chancellor candidate.

Germany has used the mixed-member proportional since it was adopted by West Germany at the end of the Second World War. 299 deputies are elected to the Bundestag representing single-member constituencies. Approximately 300 more deputies are elected on state lists to “top up”. For those familiar with the similar system used in New Zealand, the key difference is that list MPs represent an individual state, rather than the entire country. Parties must win at least 3 constituencies or poll 5% across the country to receive list seats.

Recent opinion polls suggest that the CDU/CSU is well in front of the SPD, polling around 36-37%, up slightly from their 2005 result. In contrast, the SPD has fallen sharply, polling around 23-26%, down from 34% at the last election. Clearly the SPD is suffering from being a junior partner in the current government. The lack of an opposition major party has also aided all three minor parties, all of whom are polling consistently in the low teens, up from the 8-9% range they each polled in 2005.

With nine months before the next election, it appears that the most likely outcome will be a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition, with an outside chance of an unstable SPD/Green/Left government.

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  1. A cordon sanitaire has been erected around the Left Party, given its roots in the East German regime and dogwhistling on immigration. It cuts into the SDP’s traditional base, yet the SDP refuses to govern with it in coalition; this poses a major threat to the long term prospects of the SDP in government.

    Germany is interesting in that the Left Party is becoming increasingly successful, challenging the dominant ‘two-party plus’ system (that is, two parties with a preferred coalition partner each). It looks a contender to take government in the Saarland at its next election, and may scramble the whole nature of German politics with its rise.

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