When I first arrived in Germany, my German political knowledge didn’t extend much beyond the fact that Angela Merckel was the chancellor of Germany, and that her government was a coalition of her own party (the CDU) and a more liberal party (the SPD). Thanks to a very politically active host family, the upcoming election, and a tour of the German parliamentary building last Friday, I think I can do the German system a little more justice now.
The first thing I learned was that the German party system regularly involves coalitions, as there are not just two dominant political parties as in the US. Simply and pictorally put, the scale looks something like this:
I’ve arranged the parties above according to the strength of their leftist or rightist political ideologies, from left to right, of course. The Green Party can’t really fit neatly onto this scale, so I just put them slightly below and to the left side. (Incidentally, the terms “left” and “right,” as associated with certain ideologies, were coined because the more socialist party parliamentary members sit on the left side of the room, while the conservatives sit on the right.) According to my host family, Die Linke is essentially a Communist party. In contrast, they call the NPD the Nazis and indeed, the remnant of fascist thought in Germany is represented in the very small NPD. The SPD focuses a lot on labor unions; the CDU is technically a Christian party and somewhat stronger in Southeast Germany (Bavaria); the FDP leans toward smaller government in economic policies and leaving the “social” issues up to the individual. Obviously, this is an over-simplification of every party and I’m relying on heavily on what I have been told by the Germans I know, so my apologies to anyone who knows more about German politics than I do and thinks I’ve summed it up badly.
The next thing I learned is that every party in Germany has color. Confusingly, both Die Linke and the SPD are red. The FDP, however, is yellow; the CDU is black; the Green party is, of course, green; and the NPD uses the red/black/white triumvirate. When the Greens had a demonstration against the use of nuclear energy in Berlin this weekend, they held up signs saying “Schwarz-Gelb? Nein, Danke!” meaning they did not support the possible coalition between the FDP and the CDU for the elections at the end of this month. (This is also a pun on the international symbol on nuclear waste: a yellow container with the black warning triangle.)
I don’t want to lead any of my readers astray, so I’ll let you rely on newspapers, websites, and books for the rest of your information. I do hope, though, that this simplified explanation helps you understand a little more of German political dynamics as you read reports of the upcoming German elections.