There are two dominant political parties in Germany, namely the Christlich-Demokratische Union (CDU), which translates as the Christian Democratic Union; and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), which is the Socialist Democratic Party. In general the CDU is more conservative while the SPD is more liberal and progressive, and one of the two of these parties has held national control for nearly all of the recent past. There are also a number of smaller parties from which individual representatives are elected, though few of these have ever seen national power. Germany’s government is structured as a parliamentary representative democracy, and it’s led by both a head of state and a head of government. Most major decisions are filtered through elected parliamentarians who are affiliated directly with the ideologies and support of a defined political party.
Christian Democratic Union
Generally speaking, the CDU is Germany’s largest and most powerful party. It evolved from the Centre Party, which was formed in 1870. The CDU is a right-of-center political party and is based on non-denominational Christian ideals. Accordingly, this political party advocates environmental protection and equality among men, women and children. While supporting a socialist market economy, the CDU seeks free market integration with European Union (EU). Representatives from this party typically advocate for stronger German values and traditions, and place an emphasis on economic freedom and self-determination.
The Christian Socialist Union (CSU) is a very closely related party but it exists only in Bavaria, which is a defined region of Germany with a unique history and identity. While the CDU and the CSU maintain separate political structures, they cooperate at the federal level. Together they are referred to as The Union. These parties have adherents from many faiths, but they do have certain affinities; they’re often thought to be most aligned with the ideologies of the Roman Catholic church over Protestant beliefs, for example. Even still, today the Union has become less Christian-focused and generally bases its policies on pragmatism rather than religion or ideology.
Socialist Democratic Party
While the CDU may be the biggest party, the SPD, founded in 1863, is the oldest. It is a left-wing party centered on socialist concepts. While the SPD continues to support social ideals, such as improving worker's rights, it also adopts free market concepts. The SPD lost power during the Nazi era but revived itself in West Germany and united with the independent SPD in East Germany in 1990. The Party went on to gain power in 1998 under Gerhard Schroeder.
Like most political systems, Germany has representatives in government from many other smaller and independent political movements. Thought most of these are much too small to ever achieve national prominence, the presence of many options is often thought to be really important to a free and functional system. The three most popular minor parties in modern German politics include the Free Democratic Party, the Left Party, and the Greens Party. The Free Democrats have a platform that focuses on a free market economy, individual liberties, and the social features of a welfare state. In general the Lefts are socialist politicians with great support in East Germany, which is where the party traces its original roots. It is often considered a protest party, focusing on unemployment rates, health care costs, and workers’ benefits. The Greens, as their name might suggest, have concentrated on environmental and pacifist issues since the party’s inception in the 1970s.
Understanding German Governmental Structure Generally
All of these parties operate within the larger structure of German government, and putting their power in context often requires at least an overview understanding of how the system works on a broad level. Germany's government is a parliamentary representative democratic republic. What this means is that it has a parliament, or legislature, which supports the executive branch, including the head of state. It also is a representative democracy which means the people vote to elect their representatives who, in turn, vote on behalf of the people. Finally, the German government is a republic, which gets at this notion of being led by the people rather than a monarch, for example.
The German parliament is comprised of two houses, the Bundestag, meaning Federal Diet, and the Bundesrat, meaning Federal Council. Bundestag is the only house of parliament that is composed of federal officials who are directly elected. The Bundesrat is the lower house, which consists of state council members who can be removed from parliament more easily than their Bundestag counterparts. The CDU and the SPD have dominated the Bundestag since 1949.