Is There a Single German Party System?

By Dalton, Russell J.; Jou, Willy | German Politics and Society, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Is There a Single German Party System?


Dalton, Russell J., Jou, Willy, German Politics and Society


ABSTRACT

Few aspects of politics have been as variable as partisan politics in the two decades since German unification. In the East, citizens had to learn about democratic electoral politics and the party system from an almost completely fresh start. In the West, voters experienced a changing partisan landscape and the shifting policy positions of the established parties as they confronted the challenges of unification. This article raises the question of whether there is one party system or two in the Federal Republic. We first describe the voting results since 1990, and examine the evolving links between social milieu and the parties. Then we consider whether citizens are developing affective party ties that reflect the institutionalization of a party system and voter choice. Although there are broad similarities between electoral politics in West and East, the differences have not substantially narrowed in the past two decades.

KEYWORDS

voting; elections; political parties; social class; religion; party identification

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Few aspects of politics have been as variable as electoral politics in the two decades since German unification. In the East, the collapse of the communist state led to the emergence of new political parties and citizen groups in 1989-90, which were soon usurped by parties from the West. Thus, easterners had to learn about democratic electoral politics and party competition from an almost completely new start. In the West, voters confronted a changing partisan landscape with the addition of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and then the Left Party (Linke), and the variability in the established parties' policy positions as they faced the challenges of unification.

The centrality of elections and political parties to democracy and the governing process makes it especially important to study changes in partisan politics since unification. This essay first provides a brief history of the voting results in Bundestag elections up through the 2009 election, raising the question of whether there is one party system or two. Then, we examine voters' ties to political parties, analyzing the evolving class and religious bases of party support in West and East. Then we consider whether citizens are developing affective party ties that reflect the institutionalization of a party system and voter choice. This leads to a concluding discussion about the prospects for the German party system in the immediate future.

The Evolution of the Party System(s)

The 1990 Bundestag election signaled the initial formation of two similar, but distinct, party systems in West and East. At one level there was a basic commonality. Already by the March 1990 Volkskammer election in the East, the larger, established, and well-funded political parties from the Federal Republic took over the electoral process in the new Lander. By the October 1990 Bundestag election, the eastern party system had essentially become an extension of the party system from the West (with the addition of the PDS).

Even at that time, however, there were major contrasts between parties in both regions. The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) captured a nearly equal vote share in the West and East, as a reaction to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's successful negotiation of the unification process (see Table 1). (1) While others, especially Oskar Lafontaine and the Social Democrats (SPD), looked on the events with wonder or uncertainty, Kohl quickly embraced the idea of closer ties between the two Germanies. Yet, the CDU's strength in the East ran against the leftist tendencies of the region dating back to the Weimar Republic and the Kaiserreich. In addition, the social bases of the CDU vote in class and religious terms were in stark contrast to their voter base in the West. (2) The Party of Democratic Socialism also emerged as a distinct regional and ideological party to represent the East, and the SPD fared poorly among eastern voters.

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