Strategy Debates of political parties in Germany (November 2017)

How are political movements positioned? How do they react to changes in the society and with which topics do they position themselves where in the political debate?
In this overview of political strategy debates of political parties in selected European and non-European countries, the authors strive to present political analyses not in text form, but graphically and pointedly. We hope this product contributes to a constructive discussion.

Overview: Parties and their (potential) voters in the parliamentary election 2017


The German political system, internationally revered for its stability, was disrupted by the 2017 Bundestag election outcome. For the first time in 27 years, a new party entered parliament - Alternative for Germany (AfD) managed to become the third largest party (with 12,6 % of the popular vote). The FDP re-entered the Bundestag after failing to obtain sufficient votes in 2013 for the first time in the post-war era. This increases the number of parliamentary represented factions from four to six. While Die Linke (9,2 %) and the Greens (8,9 %) slightly increased their 2013 vote shares, the two parties of the Grand Coalition, SPD (20,5 %) and CDU/CSU (32,9 %), had to cope with drastic losses. The 2017 Bundestag elections resulted in SPD’s worst and CDU/CSU’s second worst electoral performance in the post war period. Those results brought about an increase in both fragmentation (from four to six factions) and polarisation of the German political landscape, with AfD’s discourse strongly influenced by radical nationalist populism, after the moderate group around party-founder Lucke left the party in 2015. Since polls already indicated that preferred two-party-coalitions will be unlikely, the campaign itself showed no drastic signs of ideological divisions between the two main camps SPD/Greens and CDU/CSU/FDP. The situation was further complicated by the fact that SPD and CDU/CSU were governing together, having difficulties to highlight their own accomplishments while distinguishing themselves from their coalition partner (and rival). Furthermore, since the FDP held no seats in the past four years, they were campaigning as an “extra-parliamentary opposition”. The party has not forgotten that it was governing in a coalition with the CDU/CSU (2009-2013), which has resulted in its demise. The 2017 campaign was heavily influenced by the issue of immigration that became most salient after Germany’s intake of a high numbers of refugees in 2015. Here, the AfD holds a clear issue ownership and is attacking the governing parties with increased intensity. This has led to a severe internal struggle between CDU and CSU with regard to the implementation of a limit for the number of asylum seekers.

After SPD chairman Martin Schulz, widely supported by the membership, announced that his party, in the light of their electoral setback, will not enter another Grand Coalition, an often discussed “Jamaica”-coalition (comprised of CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens) appeared to be the only realistic government option. After a month of negotiations, the FDP walked away from the talks as they perceived that their policy proposals were poorly reflected in the proposed government programme. This led to growing public pressure on the SPD, also exerted by the German president, after which Schulz decided to start meeting with CDU/CSU representatives. However, opposition to the Grand Coalition within the SPD is now much stronger compared to 2013, since most party members prefer a time of reflection and renewal in opposition. According to the latest polls, the majority of the SPD partisans prefer social democratic support a minority CDU/CSU government, which is not an option for chancellor Merkel. If no government can be formed, the option of last resort would be new elections.

Analysis by political camp

1. Left-wing cam


Although the SPD was part of four of the last five German governments, the party is currently undergoing one of its most difficult and disruptive periods after World War II. The two Grand Coalitions (2005-2009 and 2013-2017) resulted in heavy electoral losses that led to the party’s worst result since 1949. On the one hand, the party aims to obtain a clear left-wing position and to “correct the Agenda 2010” that SPD chancellor Schröder implemented in the early 2000s. On the other hand, this process is undermined by the difficult and increasingly fragmented German political landscape as the party is pressured to step in if other government formations fail. As the party lost a high proportion of voters to such ideologically diverse parties as Die Linke, Greens, FDP and AfD, it will be almost impossible to win back all these voters for the next election.

Although the SPD implemented some of their key policies such as introducing a minimum wage, the party is unable to take the credit for it, partially because party has been a junior partner in the last two Grand Coalitions. Weeks before the election, the party pulled off a coup, by introducing same-sex marriage against the will of coalitions partner CDU/CSU. Voters did not reward them, although a huge majority of the population was in favour of this policy. Polls suggest that the party and its personnel enjoy positive public evaluations, but it seems that many SPD sympathisers did not vote for the party to prevent another Grand Coalition. However, the short peak in Spring 2017, where the party polled above 30 % after Schulz announced his candidacy, surely showed that the SPD still holds potential for electoral success.

SPD candidate Martin Schulz managed a solid campaign and is reasonably popular among the electorate, but did not stand a chance against Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although Merkel’s chancellorship resulted in growing polarisation, reflected in the AfD’s successes, she is far more popular than Schulz. Due to her efforts to help refugees and the introduction of rather left-wing policies such as a minimum wage, Merkel is also positively evaluated by centre-left voters, which are the Social Democrat’s electoral core. This situation could change in the near future, since it is expected that Merkel will resign in the following years and her succession is currently completely open.

Whereas the SPD has a strong overlap with the Greens’ policy propositions, the party is somehow far away from Die Linke, especially on the post-materialist dimension. The incompatibility of the positions of SPD and Die Linke is also demonstrated by Die Linke’s strong anti-militarism that includes propositions such as cancelling all military missions and Germany’s NATO membership stances which are not supported by the SPD. Such disagreements over key issues are the reasons why currently, a “Red-Red-Green” coalition (SPD, Greens and Linke) is an unrealistic option, which would have had a majority of seats from 2005 to 2009. The Greens seem like the most natural partner for the Social Democrats, but under the impression of growing fragmentation in the German party system, it seems unlikely that two-party-coalitions besides a Grand Coalition will become a feasible option for the time being. Such a “Red-Red-Green” coalition would only become a realistic option if all three parties move towards each other, although such a coalition would currently not hold a majority of the seats.


The Green’s campaign was spearheaded by two candidates from the pragmatic “Realo”-wing, Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir. The party members’ decision to select these candidates was seen as an early sign for an upcoming Jamaica-coalition with CDU/CSU and FDP, but also the reaction towards a rather unsuccessful leftist campaign in 2013. However, the negotiations for such a coalition were cancelled by the Liberals. By looking at the positions in the political landscape of all three parties, the enormous ideological gap between the Greens on the one hand, and FDP and CDU/CSU on the other hand become visible on both dimensions.

The Greens are probably facing the biggest strategic dilemma of all parties. Although the party was not too upset about the 2017 result, since it polled worse weeks before the election, such a result does not get them anywhere. The left “Fundi”-wing of the party wants a stronger emphasis on their left-libertarian positions which puts them close Die Linke and SPD, eventually pursing a coalition with the latter. Although most members of the Greens would probably support this course, the SPD is simply too weak for such an endeavour.

The pragmatic “Realo”-wing is favouring a move to the centre that would make the party more attractive to centrist voters. Such a re-positioning would increase the chance of future collaborations with FDP and CDU/CSU. This course has powerful internal supporters such as Winfried Kretschmann, prime minister of Baden-Württemberg (governing with the CDU) and Robert Habeck, vice prime minister of the Jamaica-coalition in Schleswig-Holstein who has just announced his candidacy for the green party chair. However, that would include a rather drastic ideological shift that could provoke new internal struggles between the two wings. Finally, it is interesting to note that the Greens, in contrast to almost every other party, did not lose voters to the AfD.


Die Linke’s profile is influenced by clear and strong left-libertarian positions. Not only does the party have the clearest leftist profile, it is also the most libertarian one in the German political landscape. Die Linke is strongly opposed to any military commitments and spending, focuses on the fight against climate change and puts an emphasis on multiculturalism.

However, as clear as these positions appear, the party is internally split. On the one hand, the party is still divided between a more pragmatic wing and a more radical leftist wing. This can be traced back to the foundation of the party in 2007. Die Linke was the result of a merger of the East-German PDS, more pragmatic and with governmental experience, and the more radical WASG, a left-wing flash party that was founded two years earlier as a reaction to the SPD’s labour market reforms. The pragmatics (mostly East-German branches) are pushing the party towards more centrist positions to make a coalition with SPD and Greens possible. Such a coalition is already in place in Berlin and Thuringia at the state level. That process is complexified since former SPD-members like Oskar Lafontaine are not supportive of an ideological move towards the SPD.

The second intra-party division stems from the observation that the AfD’s success is also connected to a significant vote transfer from Die Linke to AfD. While looking at the political landscape it may seem odd that left-libertarian voters are switching to a clearly right-wing conservative party. However, those voters fear that the intake of refugees will lead to cuts in social benefits for the natives. Chairman Sahra Wagenknecht is part of the internal faction that wants to address those voter groups, which has already provoked heavy internal fights with the left-libertarian part of the party. Since the positions of both wings are almost incompatible and compromises are hard to imagine, it is possible that this internal struggle will result in the departure or even separation of the defeated wing.

2. Civic camp + AfD


The CDU/CSU is treated as a single party (Union) since they campaigned with a joint program, that was accompanied by CSU’s “Bayernplan”. Although CDU/CSU makes similar pro-business economic proposals like the FDP, critics argue that the party is far too evasive and flexible on crucial issues for which Angela Merkel is mainly blamed. For example, for issues such as unemployment benefits, pensions and minimum wages, the party prefers to rely on independent commissions.

The intake of a high number of refugees has caused severe internal struggles, especially between CDU and CSU. The last year has seen an intense fight over the conservative profile of the Union, where the CSU heavily emphasised on the limitation of asylum seekers as means of stopping voters switching to AfD. This debate has even intensified after the elections. It can be expected that that the CSU will push forward on this issue to be well prepared for next year’s state elections in Bavaria. Right now, it is unclear how this struggle will develop, since the parties seem to have agreed on a trace before a new government is in place.

The political landscape highlights the vast ideological differences between SPD and CDU/CSU that would need to be bridged in case both parties reach an agreement for another Grand Coalition. They are facing the same dilemma as the SPD. Both parties have a clear preference for a coalition partner, but two-party-coalitions have become increasingly unlikely in a polarised six-party-system. For the CDU/CSU, a new Grand Coalition could lead to a further watering down of their profile that could lead to even higher losses of voters.


For the Liberals, the 2017 election was a special one. The FDP was voted out of the parliament in 2013 – an odd situation for the party with the most governmental participations in Germany. In 2017, the party ran a very personalised campaign, putting a focus on its chairman, Christian Lindner, and re-entered the German Bundestag. FDP supports the most business-friendly economic policies with a focus on digitalisation and tax cuts.

In the past, the Liberals have formed a “social liberal coalition” with the Social Democrats from 1969-1982. Currently, a “Red-Yellow-Green” coalition with SPD and the Greens is in place in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Although the FDP’s emphasis on business-friendly policy proposals is already not compatible with the SPD on the federal level, the latest developments indicate that the party could be adopting a more conservative stance. During the campaign, the party adopted an immigration-critical position, which was also highlighted during the failed Jamaica-coalition negotiations with the Greens and CDU/CSU. In fact, it was the Liberals that ended those talks, which was a bold and risky move. As a result, some of their core-voters may evaluate that decision critically. Nevertheless, it is also possible that other parts of the electorate will reward this move. The latest polls indicate that AfD voters sympathise with the FDP’s tough stance on immigration. While the analysis shows that almost no FDP voters from 2013 switched to AfD, the Liberals could aim to convince AfD voters to vote for them.


Since the last elections in 2013, where the party narrowly missed the 5 % threshold, the AfD transformed from a pro-business neo-liberal party that campaigned mainly against the Euro to a nationalist populist party. Although the party is partly still dominated by strong business-friendly positions such as tax cuts, the party has not yet reached a consensus among key issue like pensions or health care systems. The next party congresses will show whether AfD will make a move to the left, thus following the path of other European populist parties such as UKIP and Front National.

However, the AfD vote is clearly driven by cultural rather than economic or social issues. The party has strong issue ownership in the policy area of immigration and integration. In fact, the rise of the AfD ran parallel to the increased saliency of those issues in the public discourse since the intake of a high number of refugees in 2015. The AfD was very successful in pressuring the other parties to adopt stricter anti-immigration stances by instrumentalising public fear.

Although the moderate wing around party founder Lucke left the party in 2015, the internal debates are not over. The biggest differences are between a moderate wing that aims for governmental participation and a strictly anti-establishment wing that seeks fundamental opposition to all other parties. During the election campaign, AfD representatives broke several taboos by making drastic comments. For example, candidate Alexander Gauland said that federal commisioner of integration, Aydan Özoguz who is of Turkish descent, should be “disposed” in Turkey. As a consequence, chairman Frauke Petry left the party one day after election day, although commentators think that this was mainly a revenge driven move since the party did not make her the top candidate.

How were the graphs created?

The graphs show the positions of German parties in a two-dimensional political space, based on stances on 30 salient policy issues in the contemporary public debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and media discourse. Each issue statement is framed in such a manner that it relates to the economic left-right dimension or the cultural libertarian versus authoritarian dichotomy. The horizontal axis represents the economic dimension, differentiating political parties on policy issues related to state intervention in the economy, redistribution, taxation policy and the welfare state. The vertical axis addresses the post-materialist cleavages that juxtapose libertarian/progressive versus authoritarian/conservative positions. Here, typical issues are multiculturalism, immigration, national identity, gender equality and environmentalism. Parties were positioned on the issues with a 5-point scale ranging from “completely disagree”, “disagree”, “neutral”, “agree” to “completely agree”. They were positioned in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed in their party manifesto, website and other campaign material, including reports in the media. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. All parties except for the AfD responded to this request. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with an expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions. However, in case no consensus was reached (for example, if the party’s justification was not convincing) the expert team reserved their right to make a final placement decision.

The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centre of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis. More specifically, the broadness of an ellipsis refers to the spread on the left and right dimension whereas the height is the result of variation on the post material axis.



Jan Philipp Thomeczek - Promovend, Universität Dusiburg-Essen


André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV

Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Ognjan Denkovski – Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV

Project coordination:

Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

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