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Political Parties

Observers often describe political parties as critical stabilizing institutions in democratic systems of government. Because of the central role played by German political parties, many observers refer to Germany as a "party state." The government of this type of state rests on the principle that competition among parties provides for both popular representation and political accountability for government action.

On the role of parties, Article 21 of the Basic Law stipulates that "the political parties shall participate in the forming of the political will of the people. They may be freely established. Their internal organization must conform to democratic principles. They must publicly account for the sources of their funds." The 1967 Law on Parties further solidified the role of parties in the political process and addressed party organization, membership rights, and specific procedures, such as the nomination of candidates for office.

The educational function noted in Article 21 ("forming of the political will") suggests that parties should help define public opinion rather than simply carry out the wishes of the electorate. Major parties are closely affiliated with large foundations, which are technically independent of individual party organizations. These foundations receive over 90 percent of their funding from public sources to carry out their educational role. They offer public education programs for youth and adults, research social and political issues, and facilitate international exchanges.

Party funding comes from membership dues, corporate and interest group gifts, and, since 1959, public funds. Figures on party financing from 1992 show that dues accounted for over 50 percent of SPD revenues and 42 percent of CDU revenues. Federal resources accounted for 24 percent of SPD revenues and 30 percent of CDU revenues; donations accounted for 8 percent and 17 percent, respectively. The parties must report all income, expenditures, and assets. The government substantially finances election campaigns. Any party that gains at least 0.5 percent of the national vote is eligible to receive a set sum. This sum has increased over time and, beginning in January 1984, amounted to DM5 (for value of the deutsche mark--see Glossary) from the federal treasury for every vote cast for a particular party in a Bundestag election. Parties at the Land level receive similar public subsidies. The political parties receive free campaign advertising on public television and radio stations for European, national, and Land elections. Airtime is allotted to parties proportionally based on past election performance. Parties may not purchase additional time.

Several events, including a party-financing scandal in the early 1980s and an electoral campaign in Schleswig-Holstein marked by dirty tricks in the late 1980s, have contributed to increased public distrust of the parties. A 1990 poll showed that West Germans, in ranking the level of confidence they had in a dozen social and political institutions, placed political parties very low on the list.

Although only 3 to 4 percent of voters were members of a political party, all the major parties experienced a decrease in party membership in the early 1990s, possibly a result of the increased distrust of political parties. SPD membership fell by 3.5 percent in 1992 to 888,000. At the end of the 1970s, the party had had more than 1 million members. CDU membership fell by 5 percent in 1992 to 714,000, while that of the FDP fell by about one-fifth to 110,000.

Article 21 of the Basic Law places certain restrictions on the ideological orientation of political parties: "Parties which, by reason of their aims or the behavior of their adherents, seek to impair or abolish the free democratic basic order or to endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany, shall be unconstitutional. The Federal Constitutional Court shall decide on the question of unconstitutionality." This provision allowed for the banning of the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party in 1952 and the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands--KPD) in 1956.

The decision to regulate the organization and activities of political parties reflects lessons learned from Germany's experience during the post-World War I Weimar Republic, when a weak multiparty system severely impaired the functioning of parliamentary democracy and was effectively manipulated by antidemocratic parties. After World War II, many parties dotted the West German political landscape, but electoral laws allowed only parties with at least 5 percent of the vote to have representation in national and Land parliaments. Over time, the smaller parties faded from the scene. From 1962 to 1982, the Bundestag contained representatives from only four parties: the CDU, the CSU, the SPD, and the FDP (see table 4, Appendix). The Greens gained enough of the national vote to win seats in 1983, and unification brought additional parties into the Bundestag in late 1990. At the federal level, the CSU coalesces with the CDU, the largest conservative party. The SPD is the major party of the left. The liberal FDP is, typically, the critical swing party, which can form a coalition with either the CDU/CSU or the SPD to create the majority needed to pass legislation in the Bundestag.

Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union

Following World War II, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU) was founded by a diverse group of Catholics and Protestants, businesspeople and trade unionists, and conservatives and moderates. The party espoused a Christian approach to politics and rejected both Nazism and communism. CDU members advocated conservative values and the benefits of a social market economy--that is, one combining capitalist practices and an extensive welfare system. Konrad Adenauer, the CDU's first leader and West Germany's first chancellor, envisioned the CDU as a conservative catchall party (Volkspartei ) that would attract a majority of the electorate.

The CDU is a national party except in the Land of Bavaria, where it is not active, in deference to its sister party, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU). Bavaria has the largest concentration of conservative, rural, Catholic voters, and the CSU has dominated politics there since 1957. The CSU was personified by its leader, Franz-Josef Strauss, until his death in 1988. By 1994 no clear heir to Strauss had emerged, but the CSU nonetheless retained its absolute majority in the Land election of September 1994 (see table 21, Appendix). Germany's population increased through unification, and thus it has become more difficult for the CSU to pass the 5 percent electoral threshold at the national level. However, the CSU performed strongly in the 1994 national election, garnering 7.3 percent of the vote. The CDU and the CSU form a single Fraktion in parliament, choose a common candidate for chancellor, and have always governed in coalition. Below the federal level, the two party organizations are entirely separate.

From 1949 until 1963, Adenauer and his CDU dominated German politics (see West Germany and the Community of Nations, ch. 2). At the time of the 1961 election, Adenauer was eighty-five years old, and the opposition SPD was gaining in popularity. Ludwig Erhard, a CDU member credited with engineering Germany's postwar economic miracle, succeeded Adenauer as chancellor in 1963 (see table 3, Appendix). An economic recession then hastened the end of the CDU/CSU's hold on power. November 1966 brought the creation of the Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD with Kurt Georg Kiesinger (CDU) as chancellor and Willy Brandt (SPD) as vice chancellor (see Ludwig Erhard and the Grand Coalition, ch. 2). The FDP was relegated to the opposition benches. After the 1969 election, the SPD formed a coalition with the FDP, leaving the CDU/CSU in opposition for the first time in West German history.

For thirteen years, the CDU/CSU waited to regain power. By the early 1980s, the CDU had adopted a new party program consisting of conservative economic policies, resembling those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and moderate social and foreign policies. Helmut Kohl, as leader of the CDU/CSU Fraktion in the Bundestag, was also rebuilding a political bridge to the FDP. In 1982, as West Germany's economy weakened, the liberal SPD and the economically conservative FDP could not settle on a package of economic remedies. The FDP chose to leave the coalition and form a new government with the CDU/CSU. The constructive vote of no-confidence was used successfully for the first time to unseat Helmut Schmidt as chancellor; Kohl replaced him. West Germans ratified this change through early elections called for March 1983 (see The Christian Democratic/Christian Socialist-Free Democratic Coalition, 1983- , ch. 2).

By the late 1980s, the CDU/CSU was growing increasingly unpopular. The CDU/CSU was also facing a new challenge from the right in the form of a new extreme right party, the Republikaner. In a series of Land elections, the Republikaner successfully eroded some of the CDU/CSU's support. The collapse of the German Democratic Republic, however, provided Kohl with a historic opportunity to reverse the fortunes of his party. While most Germans reacted to the change in the geopolitical landscape with amazement, Kohl seized the moment and actively advocated early unification (see Unification, ch. 8). The first, free, all-Germany election since November 1932 took place in December 1990. In essence, this election became a referendum on the process of unification; the CDU/CSU emerged victorious, with Kohl promising greater prosperity for all Germans. As the costs of unification, in economic, social, and psychological terms, became more apparent to both western and eastern Germans, the CDU began suffering setbacks in Land and local elections. Nonetheless, Chancellor Kohl was able to claim a narrow victory in the national election of October 1994. Kohl's governing coalition benefited from an increasingly positive economic outlook in Germany and from the fact that the opposition Social Democratic candidate, Rudolf Scharping, was seen by many as lackluster (see Political Developments since Unification, this ch.).

The organizational structure of the CDU is a product of the party's evolution. In its early years, the CDU was a loose collection of local groups. Over time, a weak national party emerged to complement the strong Land party organizations. In the early 1970s, the CDU built up its national organization to compete with the more tightly structured SPD. Membership and party income increased accordingly. The Federal Executive is the primary executive organ of the CDU. It consists of about sixty individuals, including the party chair (elected for two years), several deputy chairs, a general secretary, a treasurer, the CDU's main legislative representatives, and the leaders of the Land party organizations. Because the Federal Executive is too large and does not meet frequently, a smaller subset called the Presidium, composed of the highest ranking CDU officials, actually sets party policy and makes administrative decisions. Each Land except Bavaria, where the CSU is active, holds semiannual party congresses and has an executive committee. These party structures are primarily responsible for the selection of party candidates for Bundestag elections. Every two years, the CDU holds a full party congress of several hundred party activists. Kohl has served as national chairman of the CDU since 1973, headed the parliamentary Fraktion from 1976 until 1982, and continues to lead the party as chancellor. Kohl's single-handed management of the party has given him a political dominance within the CDU that only Adenauer surpassed.

The CDU maintains several auxiliary organizations designed to increase the party's attractiveness to particular societal groups and to represent their views within the party. CDU statutes list seven organizations representing youth, women, workers, business and industry, the middle class, municipal politics, and refugees. Other, unofficial groupings exist as well. The most powerful of the auxiliary organizations has traditionally been the one representing business and industry. Although these auxiliary organizations are legally autonomous from the CDU, a high percentage of their members are also members of the CDU.

Data as of August 1995

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