Strategy debates of German political parties 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.  April 2017.

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany von FES 

What will be the political mood in September 2017?

In the run-up to the 2017 German federal elections, intense internal debates over positioning have begun within the political parties. Party strategists have to take into account a vast array of contradictory factors: What will be the political mood in September 2017? What issues will dominate the political agenda? On which policy fields will voters attribute competency to the party and its figure-heads? What do the base, the wings, the core constituencies want? Which potential coalition seems most promising to credibly claim a shot at forming the next government?

None of these questions are new to campaigners. What did change over time is the way political parties seek to tackle these challenges. In the more homogeneous German post-war society, mobilization of core constituencies was what decided elections. Accordingly, political parties aimed to mobilize their core constituencies with elaborate party and grassroots organizations. Today, deindustrialization has effectively eroded many of these socio-cultural milieus, provoking considerable voter fluctuations between the political camps. The workers and "the common man" for example, formerly core constituencies of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), are now overwhelmingly voting for conservative or right-wing populist parties. Conversely, civil servants and public employees, a formerly conservative constituency, are voting for social democrats today. While voter turnout is falling year after year, the number of swing voters has gone up sharply. Political parties reacted to this trend by focusing less on core constituency mobilization, but by concentrating on winning over the swing voters at the center ("Neue Mitte"). In the previous elections in 2012, the Christian Democrats (CDU) even successfully fielded a demobilization campaign, securing a comfortable win by asymmetrically mobilizing its core constituencies and winning swing voters at the center. Instead of grassroots organizations, focus groups and opinion polls became the instruments of choice. However, the massive disruptions of the electoral landscapes in the United States (Trump and Sanders insurgencies) and Europe (rise of right-wing populist parties) have shown the limitations of such electoral engineering. What may look like a clever tactical move can easily be perceived as a lack of authenticity. In the worst case scenario, the party may lose both core constituencies as well as swing voters.

Despite all the talk of "the end of ideologies", parties cannot position themselves arbitrarily on the political map. Their own historical path, and even more importantly the socio-cultural life world of their supporters matter. These life worlds should not be understood as socio-economic classes but as discourse communities who share central promises and historical experiences, myths, worldviews and values. These discourse communities are not static, but change over time. However, compared to the sometimes abrupt positional changes of party leaderships, discourse communities change their positions pace of generational changes. Hence, if for tactical reasons a political party positions itself outside the lifeworld of its supporters, weak voter turnout and internal quarrels are the likely consequences.

The three dimensions of the graphs

The slides represent three dimensions. First, the official party line as defined by party conventions, programmatic platforms, and leadership committees. Second, the lifeworld of core constituencies, which are defined by the discourses and values predominant in social milieus. And finally the tactical debates between wings, factions and party leaders. The slides are informed by the interdependencies between these three dimensions, and aim to visualize the distortions which may arise between the highly stable lifeworlds and the highly dynamic tactical maneuvers of leaders and strategists. This tool aims at facilitating strategic debates. The exact party positions are based on personal perceptions and of course up for debate.

How were the graphs created?

In June 2016, FES International Policy Analysis published the first visualization of the German political party field with the stated aim of making internal strategy debates known to a wider public. The ensuing debates on social media were fascinating if controversial, and have encouraged us to visualize the party landscape of Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands and France. It became clear, however, that there is a need to clarify once more what exactly this visualization intends to show.

In the Anglo-Saxon literature, the material poles were simply named "Left" and "Right". The material axis reflects the different governance paradigm when it comes to primary and secondary distribution of goods. From a continental, especially German perspective, however, "Left" and "Right" are equally associated with positions which in our scheme would be qualified as „Libertarian“ or „Authoritarian“ on the cultural axis. To avoid further misunderstandings, the material poles are now renamed the material poles as "Egalitarian" and "Elitist", to reflect the primary target groups political parties struggle for in the distributional conflict. 

There were questions about the empirical base of this visualization. Discourse analysis, the analytical instrument applied to produce these maps, however, is qualitative, not quantitative tools. If you dismiss the results as „subjective“, please keep in mind the objective of the exercise: to encourage public debate, not to document them academically.

The visualisation of discourses

Some have criticised that the positions of the parties do not reflect their actions in government. Again, two clarifications:First, what is visualized are discourses, not policies. Second, these maps are snapshots of the current discourse landscape. In a dynamic field, the positions of April 2017 are different from those in June 2016, and are likely to have yet again moved in a year from now. To make this dynamism visible, I have added some historical party positions. 

What is important to note is that political leaders, party platforms and lifeworlds move at different speed. While the tactical positions of political figureheads (depicted as arrows with quotes) can shift on a weekly basis, party platforms (the boldly coloured dots) moved between party conventions and elections, and the lifeworlds of core supporters (lightly coloured ellipses) over the course of generations. Why is this so important? Different tactical positions result in conflicts between party wings. If the party platform is positioned outside of the lifeworld, however, voter demobilization and even party splits can be the outcome. Arguably, it was the disconnection between the social democratic lifeworld and the "Neue Mitte SPD" which produced the WASG (later merged with Die Linke), and the strain between the Union lifeword and the "Volkspartei der Mitte" which gave rise to the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Individual Overview

Strategic situation of the Social-Democratic Party (SPD)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: SPD von FES 

The Social Democrats (SPD) have moved from left to right and back again over the course of the last decade. Historical defeats in 2009 and 2013 suggested that its "Third Way" positions were out of touch with the socio-cultural lifeworld of its core supporters. In the "Grand Coalition" government (with the center right CDU/CSU), the SPD has inched towards the left (legislating minimum wages, rent control, promoting retirement reform, end of austerity) and the libertarian pole (gay marriage, gender quota, equal pay). At the same time, the flip-flopping on trade policy (TTIP, CETA) and the energy transition, as well as the support for austerity in the euro crisis shows that positions right of the center are still being promoted. Openness for dialogue with right-wing protesters, legislation on data retention, and a proposal to let criminal migrants serve their time in "prisons in their home-countries" point towards the authoritarian pole. All things considered, the SPD has moved closer to the lifeworld of its supporters.

In the run-up to the next elections, different camps struggle over the right position on the electoral map. Many still believe that elections are won at the center ("Neue Mitte"). Putting retirement reform as well as a progressive tax reform on the agenda, on the other hand, would signal a position further on the left on the material axis, a move aimed at stealing the thunder from the culture warriors of the right-wing AfD. On the cultural axis, the SPD seeks to defend the "modern society" against the reactionary backlash from nationalist and chauvinist forces. The party chairman even advocates a “radical and fundamental” repositioning, in an attempt to energize frustrated progressive supporters with the outlook of a coalition with the Left and Green parties. A recent party convention endorsed this "solidarity project" aimed at the "right wing splitters" as "politics for the solidary center". The usual demarcation rituals, i.e. over EU and NATO policy, show that a left alliance is far from being universally accepted in all three parties. There is still no consensus, if and how far the SPD should distance itself from its own actions while in government, without risking falling into a credibility trap.

With Martin Schulz as the new party chairman and candidate for chancellor, the SPD has the chance to reposition itself. Schulz‘s promises to "correct the mistakes of the Agenda 2010" as well as the "Unemployment Benefits Q" program target the core constituencies. Schulz continues the course corrections of his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel who had already started to lead the SPD from the Third Way "Neue Mitte" back into the social democrat lifeworld. One of the reasons for the enthusiasm for Schulz ("Schulz effect") is that the candidate, after years of emotional alienation, is finally in tune again with the values and language of core constituents. His strategic retreat from earlier openness towards Eurobonds ("The only interesting thing about bonds is James") and the public flirtation with a red-yellow-green coalition (the so called "traffic light coalition") on the other hand, signal that Schulz wants to keep his options open to all sides. Similarly, on the cultural axis, the "marriage for all" pledge is balanced by the law and order call for "electronic ankle monitoring for suspects".

Strategic situation of the Christian Union (CDU/CSU)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: CDU/CSU von FES 

The Christin Union (CDU/CSU) traditionally combines the globalist-liberal and the national-authoritarian currents of conservatism. On the material axis, today‘s CDU‘s position is much closer to the "christian-social" position of the Kohl government (1982-1998) and the CSU (“care allowance”) than to the historical outlier of the neoliberal Leipzig Party Convention (2003). Internal struggles over the so-called „social democratization“ of the Christian Democrats tend to take place rather on the cultural than the material axis. Angela Merkel’s ‘modernization’ courses climaxed in the "Welcoming Culture" (Willkommenskultur). How far this is removed from the lifeworld of many supporters can be observed  by the angry reactions of the national-conservative wing. Accordingly, the "refugees deal" with Turkey as well as the asylum compromise were not only meant to steal the thunder from the rightwing populist AfD, but also to heal the rift running through the Union. What remains open is the question on how to respond to the challenge posed by the right-wing AfD culture warriors in its "own quadrant". Some, mostly in the CDU, argue the best way of weakening the AfD is to emphasize the material axis with an agenda centered on merit, justice, and market freedom (e.g. the balanced budget ("Black Zero/ Schwarze Null"), tax breaks, as well as minimum pensions). Others, many of them in the Bavarian CSU, seek to monopolize the right-authoritarian sector by emphasizing the cultural axis with a domestic security and "traditional values" agenda (e.g. the father-mother-child family as opposed to patchwork families, "border control" as opposed to unlimited refugee intake). Whether these strategies will succeed in undercutting the right-wing surge remains to be seen. On the one hand, by accommodating some of the material and cultural demands of "angry citizens", the AfD could gain social respectability. On the other hand, the Christian Union parties have decades worth of experience in suffocating right-wing challengers with a close collaboration between its market-liberal and its socio-culturally conservative wings. However, if the Union moves too far towards the authoritarian pole, a coalition with the libertarian FDP or Green Party seems more difficult.

The strategic challenge for the CDU leadership is to appease the conservative base, defuse the conflict with the Bavarian sister party CSU, and counter the challenges posed by the national authoritarian Alternative for Germany (AfD), all while remaining the “people’s party at the center” ("Volkspartei der Mitte"). Accordingly, at the party convention, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière demanded "we need to deport a lot more", and reopened the debate over a German leading culture ("Leitkultur"). Other leading Christian democrats call for an "Islam law". The chancellor, on the other hand, refuses to be bound by the party convention resolution to abolish dual citizenship. It seems that contrast to the earlier strategy to crowd out right wing challengers by switching to a material message, the CDU now follows the CSU focus on the cultural axis. On the material axis, the Bavarian sister calls for a "family policy offensive", while the CDU promises tax cuts. 

Strategic situation of the Green Party (B90/Grüne)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: Green Party von FES 

The long march through the institutions (the defiant call for a cultural revolution promoted by the students in 1968 after their defeat) finds its mirror image in the movement of the Green Party (B90/ Die Grünen) from the leftist-libertarian to the bourgeois camp. Its driving forces are both the business-friendly advocates of "green growth", as well as the "guardians of virtues" who are being accused of building an "eco dictatorship" with all their "veggie days", smoking bans and speed limits. Green libertarians, on the other hand, are ready to (re-)fight the culture wars declared by the right-wing populist "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) and struggle to defend gay marriage, gender justice and the patchwork family ideal. The most prominent internal struggle seems to run alongside the material axis between advocates of "green growth" and "de-growth". Accordingly, positions clash over the question of wealth taxes. The Greens are also divided over their coalition preference, with some advocating for a "red-red-green" coalition with the Left and the Social Democrats, others for a ‘black-green’ coalition with the Christian Union (CDU/CSU).

Those who favor a coalition with the Union ("black green"), in particular the Chief Minister of Baden-Würtemberg Winfried Kretschmann ("I pray for chancellor Merkel"), suffered a defeat at the November 2016 party convention. While Kretschmann tried to avert a wealth tax, ("to protect small and medium businesses"), Green delegates endorsed a "wealth tax with restrictions" as well as the abolition of Hartz IV sanctions for the unemployed. With his warning that dual citizenship cannot be inherited down the generations, co-chair and co-candidate Cem Özdemir, however, signals that he still works to make "black-green" happen. On the cultural axis, the latest demands for wider video surveillance are in line with those longstanding calls for more regulations and controls which have been slammed by green critics as the path to "eco dictatorship".

Strategic situation of the Left Party (Die LINKE)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: Left Party von FES 

In Eastern Germany, the Left Party (Die Linke) has to compete against the right wing populist "Alternative for Germany" (AfD). Against this background, the provocations of Sahra Wagenknecht (co-leader of the parliamentary group) and Oskar Lafontaine (former party chairman) – evoking a German exit from the Euro, use of the term "Fremdarbeiter" (a controversial term for forced labor), insinuations that refugees may lose their "right to hospitality" as opposed to the "Right to Asylum", may be interpreted as attempts to position the party deeper within the cultural lifeworld of their supporters. With their movement from the left-libertarian quadrant to the nationalist pole, Die Linke is in tune with a wider European trend on the left to retreat into the shell of the nation-state to fend off the global capitalist onslaught on the welfare system. With these quarrels between the different wings, it remains unclear if the party will come together to endorse a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens, or prefers to continue its course of fundamental opposition. 

Wagenknecht continued her authoritarian whistleblowing by blaming Chancellor Merkel for the Berlin terror attacks and  criticism of "uncontrolled border opening". These positions, however, have neither a majority in the party leadership nor the Parliamentary group. Party Co-Chair Katja Kipping has distanced herself from Wagenknecht’s position and reconfirmed that Die Linke opposes right wing extremism and xenophobia. Party Co-Chair Bernd Riexinger publicly called on her to stick to the party line, and more generally questioned the strategy of woeing voters back from the right wing: "We will not win over those who vote for the AfD for nationalist reasons".

Strategic situation of the Liberal Party (FDP)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: FDP von FES 

At its neoliberal peak, the Free Democrats (FDP) largely abandoned their traditional civil rights agenda. With a stronger emphasis on digital civil rights, the last party convention aimed at reestablishing this lost heritage at the center of the liberal platform. Internal debates focused on the question on how to fend off the challenge by the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD). While some branches in Federal states advocated a national-liberal posture, the party leadership seems to have opted for a libertarian course to signal a clear contrast along the cultural axis. This would make the FDP a valuable coalition partner for the Christian Union (CDU/CSU), which may have to abandon some of its more libertarian positions for tactical reasons. On the other hand, moving away from the market freedom pole may open the way for a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens.

Party Chair Christian Lindner prevailed with his course to broaden the campaign platform. Alongside the usual calls for tax cuts, the FDP now also promotes the "Manhattan project to overhaul the education system". Under the slogan "Beta Republic Germany", the FDP aims to encourage entrepreneurialism and deregulation. Libertarian signals have been counterbalanced by Lindner‘s call on football national player Mesut Özil to sing along the national anthem. Ironically referring to the incident as "Özil-Gate", Linder later explained that the national anthem was the symbol of the state and the constitution, and everybody should show his allegiance to it.

Strategic situation of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD)

Bild: Strategy Debates Germany: AfD von FES 

How important the position of a party with regard to the socio-cultural lifeworld of its supporters is, can also be observed in the case of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD). Starting out as a political project for market freedom, its first chairman, Lucke, quickly lost control of the culturally authoritarian base. His successor Frauke Petry, embattled by the culture warriors of the New Right, may share his fate. One the one hand, with its new programmatic platform, the party seeks to establish itself as a permanent force in the German political party system. On the other hand, the Alternative needs a steady flow of carefully placed provocations in order to establish itself as an "anti-establishment" or even "anti-system party". With its attacks against the "rotten red-green 1968 Germany", the AfD managed to tap into middle class rage by giving “angry citizens” ("Wutbürger") an imaginary space to project their fears and anger. In this spiral of escalation, the party moves ever closer to the authoritarian pole. How difficult it is to control this structural dynamic can be observed in the latest quarrels over where to draw the "red line" between its own nativist positions and racism, anti-Semitism, and rightwing extremism.

In the power struggle with the nativist wing, Co party chair Frauke Petry went into the offensive with a "Future Motion". The party convention, however, rejected her proposal to „build up a realistic option to ascend to power by 2021. After her defeat, Petry sees her party „on the wrong track“ towards „fundamental opposition“. In the run up to the showdown, it already became clear that the national liberal wing could not prevail in the struggle to expel right wing firebrand Björn Höcke. The party convention, on the contrary, made it clear that the AfD does not seek to distance itself from nativist positions. With demands for expatriation and a "minimum deportation quota", the AfD positions itself even further to the authoritarian pole. On the material axis, on the other hand, calls for higher unemployment benefits and pensions move the self declared "tax cut party" away from the neoliberal pole towards the more centrist position shared by their right wing populist international allies.

Strategiedebatten Deutschland

Bild: Strategiedebatten Deutschland von FES 

Deutsche Version

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