From the end of the people’s parties: “I’m currently betting on a victory for the Union”

From the end of the people’s parties
“I’m currently betting on a Union victory”

The political scientist Suzanne Schüttemeyer explains the decline of the SPD and CDU, why the era of the “people’s parties” is over and why she regards the decline in membership in political organizations for politics, the state and democracy as a “big problem” – and why she still believes the Union will win the elections goes out. Prof. Schüttemeyer, first of all: Is the concept of the People’s Party still appropriate?

Suzanne Schüttemeyer is the founding director of the Institute for Research on Parliamentarism.

(Photo: Suzanne Schüttemeyer)

Suzanne Schüttemeyer: One can argue about that. I would say: no. According to the political science definition, a people’s party is open to people from all social classes and worldviews. To connect all of them as voters or members across social classes and ideologically, to strike a balance between their interests within the party – that is precisely what constitutes a “people’s party”. Only in this way can it be broadly selectable. Today, however, society is structured completely differently than at the beginning of the Federal Republic, when the CDU put the idea of ​​the People’s Party into practice. The miner who votes for the SPD from his first election to the end of his life no longer exists. It is similar with the political formation for the Union among the devout Catholics. Identification with a party has become significantly weaker. That is reflected in elections.

Which is why you no longer want to talk about popular parties.

It is almost impossible to maintain the concept of the People’s Party because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find compromises within the party between diverse and rapidly changing interests. Society has become much more heterogeneous, people are much less determined by their socio-economic or socio-cultural origin. In view of the social development with all its differences between urban and rural areas, occupational groups, lifestyles as well as higher education and increased life expectancy, it is incomparably more difficult to develop election programs that make a meaningful political offer and with which one can reach 50 percent of the citizens.

So does that mean that the SPD is only to a small extent responsible for its own downfall?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The SPD made a lot of mistakes. She has not been able to convey her achievements in the federal government, distances herself from the successes of Gerhard Schröder and his Agenda 2010 and dedicates herself to niche topics such as Cancel Culture. It doesn’t win anything, it even scares off the last regular voters. The Social Democrats should look more at what affects and affects many people. Identity politics, gender and language are not included. The way the SPD deals with its chairmen or the party’s inability to recruit convincing leaders has done the rest. Other parties have been able to ensure more stability in their structures. This also applies to the CDU, which, however, has the same problems.

Didn’t the dispute over the candidate for chancellor harm the Christian Democrats?

It was there before. In 1979, the Bavarian Franz Josef Strauss had narrowly prevailed in the CDU / CSU parliamentary group as the Union’s candidate for chancellor against the Lower Saxony Prime Minister Ernst Albrecht. That too did not go off without an argument. The CDU was nevertheless the strongest party, but Strauss was not Chancellor. I believe that the CDU and CSU will again receive the most votes this year, because old ties and conservative attitudes will overlay the current criticism of Armin Laschet and the content. But it will not be a brilliant victory. Gone are the days of easily getting over 30 percent only through regular voters. The lead over the Greens should be wafer-thin, as far as you can already foresee that today. The prerequisite, however, is that the internal party dispute is ended. People don’t like arguments.

But is that still true? Haven’t times changed?

The style of communication has changed drastically, not least because of the so-called social media. Take the AfD, for example: it was also elected, although it has always argued and its members are anything but friendly with one another. Incidentally, the AfD is not a people’s party in the East either. In addition to the protest votes that she collects, she only represents a certain clientele, I don’t see an anchorage in the middle of society. However, Germany has so far been fortunate that the AfD or another very far-right party has not produced a charismatic leader.

Are the Greens a people’s party?

No. No People’s Party has yet achieved a lot of approval in polls or in elections. The Greens do not reach all social classes by a long way; they are mainly rooted in the cities and among the more highly educated. But they are the only party that has continuously gained members. Everyone else has lost, recently also the AfD. The decline in membership is a big problem for parties, politics, the state and democracy.


The membership of the established parties has halved since 1990. At that time, four percent of the eligible population were members of a party represented in the Bundestag; today it is less than two percent. The parties provide almost all MPs and thus also the government staff in the federal and state levels. With their membership dwindling, the pool from which suitable candidates can come is getting smaller and smaller. There is a lack of offspring. The average age of the FDP is 51, that of the Greens 48 – these are the youngest parties in Germany. For the CDU and SPD, the average is 61 years.

If you summarize everything that you say, you have to ask fundamental questions: Will the party system diverge even further and how does this affect the political formation in general?

It is becoming more and more difficult to find acceptable compromises and to form coalitions, as we have already seen in East Germany, because the AfD is strong there, for example in Thuringia or Saxony-Anhalt. Even “grand” coalitions of the SPD and the Union just barely form a majority. But I don’t think that new parties will make it into parliament. Nor do I see any issues that would lead to the establishment of a sufficiently strong clientelist party. At the moment, only climate change has the potential. But the Greens have firmly occupied it.

The AfD failed in 2013 just under the five percent hurdle. In the federal election in 1980, the “others” came to 0.5, 2013 to 2.8 and 2017 to 5.0 percent. In surveys, they are currently 7.0 percent. Doesn’t that suggest that more parties get the chance to have a say in politics?

These figures are an expression of dissatisfaction with the representation by the existing parties. Whether the poll value just quoted will hold up on election day depends on many factors. Old ties may have weakened, but they still exist. People choose coalition tactics – and a lot can still happen by September. I am currently predicting a victory for the Union, but that does not mean that it will be chancellor.

Thomas Schmoll spoke to Suzanne Schüttemeyer