German election

German election: What you need to know about Germany's political parties CDU, CSU, SPD, AfD, FDP, Left Party, Greens

Chancellor Angela Merkel has won a fourth term in office, but the election race did not see a clear winner. Coalition building may prove interesting. Here's a who's who of German political parties.

Thema Große Koalition (dpa)

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU)

Color: Black

Chairperson: Angela Merkel

Membership: 430,000

Voters: People over the age of 60, churchgoers, living in rural areas - especially in southern Germany - still represent the hardcore of CDU and of CSU voters. The CDU has also done well among small business owners and people with lower or medium education levels.

2013 Bundestag election result: 41.5 percent (311/630 seats)

History: The CDU was founded in West Germany in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II as a gathering place for all of Germany's Christian conservative voters. It became the most dominant political force in the post-war era, unifying Germany and leading the government for 47 of those 67 years, alongside its Bavaria sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Standing in Paris in 1954, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stands alongside his French counterpart, Pierre Mendes, British Foreign Minister Sir Anthony Eden and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

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

CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who governed from 1949 to 1963, is the closest that the Federal Republic has to a founding father. It was Adenauer and his economy minister (and then successor as chancellor) Ludwig Erhard who presided over West Germany's "economic miracle." The party's reputation as Germany's rock of 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.

Platform: Angela Merkel represents both a continuation and a break from the CDU's traditional values. Alongside Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, German voters trust her to steward the economy safely. She also maintains 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 this legislative period by sanctioning a conscience vote in the Bundestag). However, her relatively liberal stance on immigration has turned much of the CDU base against her.

Preferred coalition partners:  FDP, SPD, possibly Greens

Chancellor Angela Merkel sits across from George Clooney and his wife Amal during a meeting in Berlin on February 12, 2016

An assuming mien, political savvy and cool headedness: 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

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Color: Red

Chairperson: Martin Schulz

Chancellor candidate: Martin Schulz

2013 Bundestag election result: 25.7 percent (193/630 seats)

Membership: 440,000

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 reformers, rather than the revolutionaries - though that didn't stop its politicians from being sent to concentration camps during the Third Reich.

Two historical posters from Germany's first worker party, the SPD, lies side by side. In one, a man and a woman wave a red flag over the words equal rights, equal duties, vote Social Democrat! In the other, a picture of Karl Marx against a blue backdrop. The words He showed us the way. His lesson is our lesson are written above and below his portrait

On the left: "Women! Equal rights - Equal duties - Vote Social Democrat - Social Democratic Party of Germany." On the right: "He, Karl Marx, showed us the way. His lesson is our lesson"

The SPD's first chancellor, Willy Brandt, governed West Germany from 1969 to 1974, having 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, another SPD figurehead. 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.

Platform:

The SPD's strong suit has always been social policy. It stands for a strong social infrastructure, while also advocating sanctions-based unemployment benefits. In 2015, the SPD was instrumental in introducing a national minimum wage in Germany - currently 8.84 euros ($9.40) an hour.

Nevertheless, the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s has lost the party some traditional support, and it's no accident that Martin Schulz's candidacy has been marked by a "correction" of the policy, and a new emphasis on social justice and tax redistribution.

Preferred coalition partners: Greens, CDU, possibly the Left

SPD candidate Martin Schulz extends his stands forward palms down while addressing an audience

Former EU leader Martin Schulz breathed new life - if only briefly - into the SPD's lagging numbers. But his short-lived success suggests the straight-talker from Germany's industrial heartland can't orchestrate a Merkel defeat afterall

The Left Party (Die Linke)

Color: Red (election coverage polls often use magenta to distinguish it from the SPD)

Chairpeople: Katja Kipping, Bernd Riexinger

Candidates: Sahra Wagenknecht, Dietmar Bartsch

2013 Bundestag election result: 8.6 percent (64/630 seats)

Membership: 60,000

Voters: The Left party's stronghold certainly remains the "new German states" in the former East, where its voters tend to be former communists who supported the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Left's western followers tend to be younger "protest" voters, who want to express their disenchantment with traditional parties. If polls are to be believed, many of these have switched to the populist nationalism of the AfD in the past two years.

History: Though it was only founded in 2007, the Left party has a much longer history, and is still considered a direct descendent of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled the East German GDR until reunification with the West in 1990.

Berliners stand hand-in-hand on top of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. The Brandenburg Gate looms in the background

The reunification of West and East Germany into today's Federal Republic brought with it former communists looking for a new political home. Their political activities eventually led to the emergence of the Left Party

The Left Party was formed out of a merger  SED successor, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and  Labour and Social Justice - The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a west German movement of trade unionists and disgruntled SPD members alienated by the welfare cuts introduced by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The most prominent of these was Schröder's first finance minister and SPD chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, a high profile SPD renegade, who later led the Left party and is still a prominent figure.

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 much government experience at state level.

Voters: The Left party's stronghold certainly remains the "new German states" in the former East, and where it is a fixture in state parliaments, and where its voters tend to be older people who remember the GDR. The Left's western followers tend to be younger "protest" voters, who want to express their disenchantment with traditional parties. If polling surveys can be believed, many have switched to the populist nationalism of the AfD in the past two years.

Platform: Currently the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, 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 from the current rate of 8.84 euros to 10 euros ($10.60). 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

Read: Where will Europe's mega-election year 2017 leave the Left?

Left Party leaders Sahra Wagenknecht und Dietmar Bartsch lean their heads together to discuss something quietly during a meeting of parliament

Pushed into the corner by an unbeatable CDU-SPD coalition government for the past four years, Left Party leaders Dietmar Bartsch and Sahra Wagenknecht must now put their heads together to bolster numbers among voters drifting toward the populist AfD

The Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen)

Color: Green

Chairpeople: Cem Özdemir, Simone Peter

Candidates: Cem Özdemir, Katrin Göring-Eckardt

2013 Bundestag election result: 8.4 percent (63/630 seats)

Membership: 60,000

Voters: The Greens rely heavily on the well-educated, urban demographic for its voter base - and its strongholds tend to be major cities in western Germany, especially where universities are located. However, the party's voters have also aged significantly over its 30-year history: less than 10 percent of Green voters are now under 35. By the same token, Green voters have become more affluent over the years, and the Greens struggle to attract voters from the working class.

History: The Green party is probably the most successful counterculture movement in Germany's post-war political history. The party, whose official name is Alliance '90/The Greens, grew out of an assortment of social protest movements of the 1980s that eventually unified.

Two long-bearded members of the Green Party sit in Germany's lower house of parliament in 1983

The Greens cleared the 5-percent 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 - all the 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 in the early 2000s, when it became junior coalition partner to Gerhard Schröder's SPD, and supplied his government with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Still, its biggest electoral success only came in 2009, when it claimed over 10 percent of the national vote for the first and only time.

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 counterculture roots.

The Realos have slowly taken control of the party, to the extent that it is now in a coalition with the conservative CDU in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. While environmentalism remains a core cause (agriculture reform was a key Green achievement in the early 2000s), it has also tried to a push a leftist agenda on tax and social policy. However, its lack of success in the last election, and the prospect of a coalition with the CDU, suggests that it may opt for a more centrist approach this year.

Preferred coalition partner: SPD 

Read: Why the German Green Party is wilting

Green Party members sit in a transparent tent illuminated by green lights where they are answering voters' questions in Berlin on September 19, 2013

Is the Green Party living in a bubble? That's what critics are wondering given the rising affluence of the opposition party once associated with counterculture and environmental activism

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Color: Light blue

Chairpeople: Frauke Petry, Jörg Meuthen

Candidates: Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel

Membership: 27,000

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 lower income earners with lower education levels - though that is by no means its exclusive voter base. Its membership, meanwhile, has one significant feature - only 15 percent are women.

2013 Bundestag election result: 4.7 percent (0/630 seats)

History: The right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has surged to prominence in the four years of its existence. Founded just five months before the 2013 election as a euroskeptic party, the AfD very nearly entered the Bundestag.

AfD-Parteitag in Essen Bernd Lucke (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gambarini)

Once a small voice in the political landscape, the euroskeptic AfD soon grew into a vocal critic of the German government's refugee policy. Bernd Lucke (pictured) left the party he had helped found as its position became more extreme

Since then, Germans have elected the AfD to every state parliament in regional elections as well as the European parliament, though that surge has dipped recently. It is currently polling at roughly 8 percent.

The AfD was originally created by a group of euroskeptic academics as a protest against the single European currency - specifically sparked 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.

In 2016, the AfD was the only major German party to welcome the election of US President Donald Trump and Britain's decision to leave the EU.

Platform: The AfD wants to seal the EU's borders, institute rigorous identity checks along Germany's national 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 other parties, but closest in policy to the CDU.

Read: Ten things you need to know about the AfD

Read: Bernd Lucke: It's wrong to demonize the AfD 

Protesters hold up red cards during a demonstration against the AfD in Freilassing in 2015

Critics accuse the AfD of giving hate and intolerance a platform. Their political gains have prompted angry responses from Germans dismayed at the reemergence of values associated with right-wing extremists and Nazis

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Color: Yellow

Chairperson: Christian Lindner

2013 Bundestag election result: 4.8 percent (0/630 seats)

Membership: 54,000

Voters: As the party of free enterprise, it's no surprise that the FDP has found the most voters among the self-employed, especially business owners, 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-percent hurdle to enter the lower house. It has struggled for relevance ever since, but has experienced a resurgence und new leader Christian Lindner, and is now likely to re-enter parliament in September and could even re-join the government in coalition with the CDU.

German President Theodor Heuss lights a cigarette for Iranian Queen Soraya

The FDP proved an indispensable partner in the business of kindling good foreign relations and rebuilding the country's damaged political system. Here: President Theodor Heuss (FDP) lights a cigarette for Iranian Queen Soraya

Founded in December 1948, the FDP has been kingmaker to both the CDU and the SPD in its time. Though it has never led a German government, it participated in government for a total of 41 years, longer than any other party. Consequently, it has 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 post-war historical figures.

Platform: The FDP's program is founded on the principle 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 staunchly pro-European party, and its most recent manifesto calls for deepening ties with the European Union.

Preferred coalition partner: CDU

Read: Germany's liberals, the FDP: What you need to know

Deutschland FDP-Bundesparteitag in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska)

The FDP is eager to prove its importance as party at the national level in upcoming elections. Young leader Christian Linder is pushing for more investments in a digital Germany

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