Letter from Berlin Do Germany's Social Democrats Still Matter?

It has been a long, and at times rapid, decline. Now, for the first time ever, the Social Democrats are no longer Germany's largest party. It is just one more symptom of the country's fast-changing political landscape -- one in which the SPD is struggling to find its role.


Germany's SPD has been losing members and influence.

Germany's SPD has been losing members and influence.

It used to be that when Germans went to the polls, there were really only two parties to choose from. Just to the right of center, there were the Christian Democrats or, in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union. Just to the left of center, there were the Social Democrats. Whichever of the two large parties got the most votes, formed a governing coalition with the business-friendly mini-party Free Democrats. It was a simple -- and politically stable -- time.

Such a straightforward party landscape, though, is a thing of the past in Germany. And over the weekend, it became yet more apparent that the simple right-left political dance that served Germany well for the half-century since its 1949 founding has become much more complicated. For the first time ever, the Social Democrats -- the center-left party of the German worker -- is not the largest political party in Germany.

According to just-released statistics, the Social Democrats had 529,994 members on the last day of June. The Christian Democrats on that day boasted 530,755 members -- 761 more than the SPD. It was, as CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla, an "historical day." At party headquarters, a poster was hung up welcoming visitors to "Germany's largest political party."

It's not difficult to understand the CDU's euphoria. It was just three decades ago that the SPD was at its high-water mark of 1.02 million members against a CDU highpoint of 735,000 which the party reached at the beginning of the 1980s. Just after World War II, the SPD had a million more members than the CDU did, and even in the 1960s the center-left had more than twice as many members than its rivals from the center-right.

Now, though, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to catch up to the SPD and nose ever-so-slightly ahead. But far from being a cause for CDU celebration, this latest development in Germany's party-political landscape is yet one more warning that German politics is in flux and that the future looks much more complicated than the past. After all, the SPD may be hemorrhaging members -- but it is doing so only slightly faster than the CDU. In the last year, the center-left party lost 20,000 members against CDU losses of 15,000.

In short, Germans are fleeing the large, established parties in droves. "We are experiencing a general upheaval -- a realignment of the party system," Peter Lösche, a political scientist at the University of Göttingen, told the Financial Times Deutschland on Monday.

It is a realignment that is clearly benefiting Germany's smaller parties. The Free Democrats have attracted a thousand new members this year and now stand at just over 65,000 members. The Greens have likewise added a handful of members recently. And the far-left Left Party has been booming, having added over 5,000 members since the end of 2006.

But it's not just the established parties that are benefiting. Across Germany, people seem to be looking elsewhere for political representation. Not only has the Left Party managed to sneak over the five-percent hurdle and into a number of state parliaments in western Germany, but so-called "mini-parties" have also been faring well in local elections. The party "We in Flensburg," for example, was recently the strongest party in that northern-German city's municipal elections, while in Bremen the right-populist party Bürger im Wut ("Citizens Enraged") entered parliament following July elections. Right-wing parties such as the neo-Nazi NPD have likewise managed to enter parliament in some eastern German states.

The result, say German political scientists, will likely be increased difficulties when it comes to forming governments. Or, as the case has been in Hesse this year, extended periods without much of a government at all. Voters in the central German state cast their ballots in January. But because neither the SPD nor the CDU managed to get much more than a third of the votes -- and because the two largest parties have been unable to agree on joining forces in a coalition -- Hesse still hasn't managed to form a new government.

Indeed, the back and forth has once again served to illustrate what could be in store for Germany's political future. Most agree that an era is dawning in the country full of coalitions and political marriages of conveniences that are more evocative of Rome than Berlin. Already, the conservatives from the CDU have formed coalitions with the environmentalists from the Greens on the local level. The Social Democrats have likewise paired up with the Left Party -- accused of being a collection of disgruntled ex-Communists -- on the state level. Three-party coalitions matching up groups from either side of the political spectrum have been discussed.

Just why Germany's political landscape seems to be crumbling is a question that few can answer satisfactorily. But when it comes to recent developments within the SPD, one factor stands out: Whereas for most its 125 year history, the SPD was almost synonymous with German workers, that partnership has come to a rapid and seemingly irreversible end.

Even before Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder became chancellor in 1998, the SPD was shrinking rapidly. But once he introduced his far-reaching package of reforms known as Agenda 2010 -- especially the Hartz IV program of cuts to benefits for the long-term unemployed -- the party began losing an average of 5.5 percent of its members each year. Many refused to follow the party as it moved to the center and dropped out to join the Left Party. But the party also stopped attracting new members. Whereas over 10 percent of the party members were under 29 in 1990, now, it is just 5.8 percent. Almost half of SPD members are 60 years old or older.

Worse yet, Germany's workers are looking elsewhere for representation. In 2005, according to a recent article in Die Tageszeitung, only 41 percent of blue collar laborers in the country checked the box next to the SPD -- down from over 60 percent and more in the 1980s. The party's once-strong connection to Germany's labor unions has likewise disintegrated. Indeed, the Left Party fraction in Germany's parliament now counts just as many union functionaries as does the SPD fraction -- despite being just one-quarter the size.

Still, there is little cause for celebration at CDU headquarters. CDU General Secretary Pofalla himself admitted that "on the whole, the Christian Democrats continue to lose members." Recent programs looking to attract members, though, do seem to be showing some effectiveness. In recent months, the party has even managed to gain more members than it lost. But the future still looks bleak -- of the new members the CDU has recently signed up, over 50 percent are older than 40.


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