Path: ICPP > ICPP 2000 > Table of Countries > Germany since 1963
Germany: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Kimberly A. Allan*

The conclusion of World War II left the German people with a united culture but a divided nation. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were created from the remnants of the Weimar Republic. From its founding, the Federal Republic always maintained the goal of reunification. In 1990 its goal was finally realized when the GDR collapsed. Slowly rising in the 1980s and peaking in 1989, protests by the citizens in the GDR became more frequent, yet not more violent. East Germany went through a peaceful revolution, from the breakdown of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the East German's legislative body (Volkskammer) dissolving in 1990 in favor of joining the West German parliament (Bundestag). Throughout the 1990s, Germans have worked to bring East Germany up to the same standard of living and economic development as the West Germans. Although west and east Germany had achieved political reunification relatively painlessly, it has brought more economic and social strains between the two peoples than many anticipated.

West Germany up to 1990, Unified Germany 1990 to 2000

Three main parties--SPD, CDU/CSU, and FDP--absorbed party politics for most of West Germany's existence, until the Greens entered the mix in1983. The greatest rivalry occurred between the two larger parties: the CDU/CSU and the SPD. This rivalry can be traced through the elections as coalitions are needed to maintain control of the government.

The 1961 election brought the reign of the CDU/CSU coalition to a humbling position. They had lost their absolute majority and were thus forced to seek a coalition partner to remain in control of the government. As a result, the CDU formed a coalition with the FDP, but under the condition that the 13 year veteran leader of the CDU and chancellor, Adenauer, would resign before 1963. Two other chancellors succeeded Adenauer in a six-year span, but neither was successful at governing.

The SPD, which had slowly been chipping away seats from the CDU, was able to take advantage of the struggling, leaderless CDU in the 1969 election. By 1969, the FDP was well aware of the declining CDU and made a public shift to the left to dissociate from them. The SPD won the 69 election, making their leader, Willie Brandt, chancellor. As the balancer of power, the FDP aligned itself with the SPD and won a large victory with a combined 54.2% of the vote in the 1972 election. During his terms as chancellor, Brandt expanded West Germany's foreign relations, communicating with East Germany and the Soviet Union. Foreign policy was Brandt's forte, and he tended to it instead of the more dire domestic issues affecting West Germany at that time. Facing pressures from different angles, Brandt resigned in 1974 after an East German spy in his cabinet was arrested. Brandt was succeeded by another SPD chancellor, Schmidt.

During the reign of the Social Liberal Coalition, the CDU and its Bavarian partner, the CSU, continued to struggle, with threats of splitting from within and a lack of rising leadership. The late '70s began to reveal the holes in the SPD government. The CDU and CSU, having settled their differences, were beginning to rebuild what they had destroyed. The 1976 election revealed the first decline in SPD support since 1957. The SPD government would not be in power much longer. As chancellor, Schmidt worked well under pressure, making tough decisions about the recession in the early 1980s and the increasing oil prices. Although Schmidt was a great policy maker, he did not cooperate with the leadership in his own party. Fed up with Schmidt's independent dealings, and weary of the SPD's declining popularity, the FDP withdrew its coalition agreement with the SPD in the fall of 1982. No longer holding a majority in the Bundestag without their coalition, the Schmidt government fell apart. The CDU/CSU, in the decade preceding the 1983 election, had been rebuilding their party leadership and were able to grasp this opportunity whole-heartedly. The FDP then helped the CDU/CSU replace Schmidt with Kohl and by the 1983 election, the CDU had all the benefits of an incumbent government without the accountability.

Kohl was highly successful as chancellor, holding the position from 1983 to 1998. At unification in 1990, the popularity of Kohl exceeded the popularity of his party. When succeeding as chancellor, Kohl quickly renewed relations with the United States, the first chancellor to do so since Adenauer. Kohl also communicated with Soviet President Gorbachev in negotiations for the reunification of Germany. In 1990, Kohl was able to usher in a unified Germany. Kohl, to foster his own party support for reunification, allied himself with the East German cousin of the CDU. He argued that although the leadership was corrupted, the vast following from the commoners would be genuine. His argument for 'Alliance for Germany' paid off in a victory for the CDU with a record majority of 134 seats.

Unified Germany welcomed the Kohl government, as well as Kohl's campaigning promises of prosperity and economic expansion. By the 1994 election, Germany was in the midst of a recession, and the growth Kohl had promised was taking place slowly. The polls reflected their disappointment when Kohl's majority was reduced to 10 seats. Unfortunately for the CDU, Kohl's popularity was waning entering the election of 1998, which was won decisively by the SPD.

With promises of economic stability, domestic security and continuity in foreign affairs, Social Democratic Gerhard Schroeder defeated the sixteen year incumbent Helmut Kohl. The German public has shifted to the left, and put their hope in a new chancellor for economic and social prosperity.

Party politics in East Germany up to 1990

The communist regime, under the Socialist Unity Party (SED) maintained control up to unification in 1990. The National Front, composed of the SED and other satellite parties, won over 99% of the vote in every election. However, East Germans were only given the choice of being for or against the National Front: no other coalitions were ever on the ballot. Thus, very little activism could be shown through the polls. Instead, people began protesting in the 1980's. Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig sometimes involved upwards of 400,000 people. These forms of political activism aided in the collapse of the GDR in 1990. The GDR's foreign minister Hans Modrow met with Chancellor Kohl on numerous occasions between December of 1989 to unification in October of 1990. In the GDR's first free election in March of 1990, the citizens confirmed an overwhelming support for reunification as soon as possible. Although Germany was unified, a new political system was not developed. East Germany joined the West German political system, with a continuation of West German political parties and governmental structure.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963 to 2000

Original Parties from 1950 to 1962 terminating before 2000

West Germany

No parties fit in this category.

East Germany

631 Socialist Unity Party, SED, the dominant party in the GDR and the main player in the National Front, became obsolete after the collapse of the GDR in 1989 and the unification of Germany in 1990. The SED held the reins of power for East Germany since its compulsory merger with the German Communist Party, KPD, in 1946. Although there were other parties in existence in the GDR, they served as a democratic façade for the regime.

633 National Democratic Party, NDPD, which initially appealed to former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, served as a puppet party for the SED, and received the same fate of dissolution as the SED had after unification in 1990.

634 Liberal Democratic Party, LDPD, embodied aspects of civil liberties, but it too diminished after the German unification in 1990.

635 Democratic Peasant's Party, DBD, appealed to the agricultural workers and kept open the lines of communitcation between the National Front and the workers. The DBD, as a satellite party, was unable to survive the transition to a unified Germany.

Original Parties, from 1950 to 1962, still continuing to 2000

West Germany

121 Christian Democratic Union, CDU, in conjunction with the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union, CSU, has a joint parliamentary group in the Bundestag. The CDU has no parliamentary association in the Free State of Bavaria, while the CSU puts up candidates in Bavaria only. Collectively known as the Christian Democrats, the CDU and CSU have drawn their political base from Roman Catholics and Protestants. The CDU/CSU serves as one of the two major parties in Germany today and is fairly stable. Under Helmut Kohl, the party held control of government from 1983 to 1998.

122 Social Democratic Party, SPD, was a re-creation of a former labor-oriented party of the same name which had been outlawed by the Hitler regime in 1933. It made a comeback after WWII, controlling the government from 1969 until 1982 in a coalition with the FDP. In 1982, their government, under the leadership of Helmut Schmidt, collapsed and lost the chancellorship in the election of 1983. The SPD did not regain control of government until the 1998 election.

123 Free Democratic Party, FDP, although it is the smallest of the original parties, it has been able to balance the power in the Bundestag through the formation of coalitions. Because of this capacity, the FDP is sometimes referred to as a pivot party. Despite its small size, the FDP ahs been in power 39 of the 47 years of the Republic, and out of those years, the FDP never received more than 13% of the popular vote in any national election. But, the FDP has been slowly declining after the joint election of 1990. The FDP may be losing its pivotal role to a newer, younger Green Party which may have more to offer to the major parties. Indeed, the FDP failed to enter the governing coalition following the 1998 election, which was won decisively by the SPD who chose the Greens as its coalition partner.

East Germany

632 Christian Democratic Union, CDU, is a cousin to the CDU in West Germany. The survival of this satellite was due to the efforts of Kohl, the leader of the West Germany CDU who realized the value of East German voters in the 1990 election. He termed this coalition as the "Alliance for Germany" in the 1990 joint election. The CDU won 43.8% of the vote in 1990, making them the largest party in unified Germany. Thus, the East Germany CDU merged with the West Germany CDU to form a unified party of the same title.

New Parties formed after 1962 but terminating before 2000

West Germany

No parties fit in this category.

East Germany

636 Democratic Women's League, DFD, served the SED in the National Front. The DFD terminated with the collapse of the East German Government.

637 Free German Youth, FDJ, as a satellite to the SED, ended at unification.

638 Free German Trade Union League, FDGB, a satellite to SED and dissolved in 1990.

639 German League of Culture, DKB, a member of the National Front and disbanded due to the unification of Germany.

New Parties formed after 1962 and continuing to 2000

West Germany

124 The Greens, although they were established in 1979, they did not achieve representation in the Bundestag, and did not therefore receive recognition as a true party, until 1983 when they exceeded the 5% hurdle. The Greens began as the political arm of the citizen initiative group movement. Their platform contained a strong stance on environmental issues, so the news of the Chernobyl accident doubled their opinion polls. The Greens took votes from the generally SPD voters, leaving the SPD with little option other than moving toward the Greens to maintain those votes. As a rising party, some speculate as to the role The Greens will have in future governments: remaining a small party or becoming the new pivot party. Following the1998 election, the SPD bypassed the FDP and formed a government with the Green Party.

East Germany

6300 Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS, is a successor to the former Socialist Unity Party, SED, of the GDR. At unification, there was a five percent clause allowing East German parties a fairer chance at gaining representation in the Bundestag. Thus, the PDS was able to initially participate in the Bundestag. In 1994, the PDS won representation into the Bundestag based on 4 constituency seats it had won. Finally, in 1998, the PDS won enough votes, in addition to their constituency votes, to surpass the five percent hurdle which was once again in place.


Central Intelligence Agency, 1997. World Factbook. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.)

Conradt, David P. (6th ed.) 1996. The German Polity. (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Publishers.)

Keesing's Contemporary Archives, 1963-1986: v. 12-32. (London: Keesing's Limited)

Keesing's Record of World Events, 1986-1999: v. 32-45. (London: Keesing's Limited)

Nordsieck, Wolfram, 1997. Parties and Elections in Europe. (7/9/00).

Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, 1999. Facts About Germany. (Germany: Societäts-Verlag.)

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000