Accepting the Challenge: How German Parties (Can) Innovate

Facing the challenge of a continuously changing societal environment, German political parties are in a state of flux. Recent party reforms such as the initiatives by the Social Democrats (2011) and the Christian Democrats (2015) indicate that they accept the challenge. However, if the German parties want to preserve their privileged status as “member parties”, they will have to intensify their efforts. Departing from this argument, this article outlines the current state of German parties, reflects emerging trends in German society, summarizes the focal points of previous party reforms, and sketches some promising future innovations.

The Status Quo: The Ideal and Reality of the German Member Parties

Political parties are key actors in German democracy.[1] As member parties, their privileged status in state and society is functionally and normatively based on a mutual deal between the party organization and its members: The latter supply resources such as money or manpower and receive in return far-reaching and exclusive rights to influence the course of their party—for example, by participating in the nomination of candidates for elections or in decision-making concerning party programs.[2]

However, the German parties have come under increasing pressure since the 1990s. They are—though to different degrees—affected by an “organizational sclerosis”[3] with a steady decline of membership being the most obvious and widely recognized symptom.[4] Statistics reveal the drama (Figure 1): Within the last twenty-five years, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has nearly lost 500,000 people—nearly half of its membership. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Liberals (FDP), and the Left (LINKE) are experiencing similar developments, whereas the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) was able to keep its membership numbers relatively constant. Only the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) succeeded in strengthening its membership base.

Figure 1: Membership of German Parties 1990/2014

Schoofs Figure 1

Source: Own figure. Data: Oskar Niedermayer, “Parteimitglieder in Deutschland: Version 2015,” Arbeitshefte aus dem Otto-Stammer-Zentrum No. 25 (2015), (16 November 2015).

Projections indicate that things will get worse.[5] Due to their similar age structure the CDU, the CSU, the SPD, and the Left will have lost more than 60 percent of their members in 2040 compared to 2010 caused by natural deaths alone. Prospects look only slightly better for the FDP (approximately 45 percent). Even the Green Party will, without any new entries, lose roughly 35 percent of its members by the year 2040.

The Challenge: German Member Parties in a Changing Society

The drivers of this development are manifold, with the societal environment playing a key role: Demographic change, individualization, and erosion of milieus and value change have been challenging the German parties for decades.[6] Those macro trends are not only responsible for membership decline, but also confront German parties with additional (future) difficulties.

Demographic change: Even though immigration adds an element of uncertainty, German parties are facing a shrinking population, making it harder to uphold their current membership levels. Furthermore, as the German population ages, the share of the population over the age of sixty-five is expected to rise to a third by 2060.[7] German parties already mirror this trend with an average age of members ranging from 60 (Left) to 49 (Greens). The consequences for parties are ambiguous: On the one hand, older (and retired) party members have more time available to get involved in party activities. Parties can benefit from their biographical and professional experience. Thus, seniors offer precious resources to their parties.[8] On the other hand, when parties fail to recruit young members they forfeit their societal linkage—and are threatened with extinction.

Individualization and erosion of milieus: Facing an erosion of traditional milieus and an individualization of lifestyles, parties can no longer take the structural alignment of certain societal groups for granted. Although many people still have affiliations to one party or even to multiple political parties, ties have weakened on a larger scale. For the German parties this has at least two broader implications: First, they have to actively strive to reach new members. Second, they have to deal with a more pluralistic membership and thus with a bundle of diverging preferences, values, and cultural imprints.

Value change: Post-materialistic values are spreading in German society and, with that, there are more diversified aspirations of political participation.[9] Conventional forms of participation such as elections remain important, but they are supplemented by predominantly weak institutionalized forms (e.g., citizen forums, initiatives, demonstrations). Overall, citizens demand a greater level of direct involvement in political decision-making. Correspondingly, all parties see themselves confronted with rising expectations from their members claiming a greater level of co-determination allowing not only long-term, but also temporary and direct participation in intra-party decision-making processes.[10]

The Story So Far: How German Member Parties Respond

In the last decades, all major German parties have undertaken several efforts to adapt to their changing environment, resulting in a number of larger and smaller waves of party reforms[11] with federal elections being important triggers for innovations.[12] On a larger scale three overarching packages of measures can be identified.

Extension of opportunities for membership participation: The rights associated with formal party membership have gradually been extended by the introduction of plebiscitary tools allowing all members (and not just the party delegates) to participate in making either consultative or binding decisions concerning personnel affairs, policy issues, or organizational questions of the party.[13] However, since the SPD ballot in 1993 that resulted in the nomination of Rudolf Scharping as the new party chair, intra-party referenda on leadership positions have almost exclusively been used by the state parties. A recent exception is the Greens, who nominated their two leading candidates for the 2013 federal election in a direct vote. Regarding decisions on material issues, the FDP as held two ballots on the federal party level: in 1995 and 2011. Another example from the federal election in 2013 is the ballot held by the SPD concerning entry into the grand coalition. As the same time, the CDU, the SPD, and the Left are more often replacing delegate conferences for the nomination of their district candidates with conferences based on the member principle.[14]

Opening for society: Parties have at least partially opened their organizational structures for society. Since the beginning of the 1990s parties have emphasized the necessity of integrating non-members and have subsequently introduced temporary forms of membership equipping guest members with speech and propositional rights. Another measure for bringing society in is the establishment of quotas for women in leadership positions and slates.[15] First established by the Greens in 1979, they have by now been adopted by the SPD, the Left, the CDU, and the CSU. Only the Liberals still balk at women quotas. However, regulations vary widely, particularly concerning the proportion of positions that have to be held by women, the binding character (without or with formal obligation), and the area of application (party bodies and slates on different levels).

Digitalization: The digitalization of German parties is most obvious in their communication strategies. In addition to official party websites and mailing lists, channels such as online networks for party members (e.g., CDUplus or meine-freiheit by the FDP) and social media accounts are inherent parts of every party’s communication.[16] Second, parties use the internet to organize online participation. The “virtual local branch” was an early attempt by the SPD to create an alternative to the geographically-based branch membership. Already in 2000 the Greens experimented with a “virtual party convention.” Online platforms have been used by many parties to allow members and non-members to collaboratively take part in the preparation of the party programs for the federal election in 2013.

The Way Forward: Strategies for the Innovation of the Member Party

Despite those bigger and smaller reforms, the scientific assessment of their success turns out to be mixed and altogether rather critical. Indeed, nobody benefits from the formal establishment of ballots in the party statutes if they are not exercised in practice, and nobody benefits from online networks for party members if they are user-unfriendly. Without proper implementation, most efforts will be doomed. However, from an optimistic point of view, we can come to a more positive judgment: History has proven that organizational party change is possible, although it takes time and requires the willingness to overcome structural inertia and the resistance by powerful intra-party groups. Facing the old and new challenges of a continuously changing societal environment, German parties cannot sit back. Instead, they will have to intensify their efforts. As will be pointed out below, a promising way forward will be more evolutionary than revolutionary and be based on a trial-and-error principle.

Experiment with Organizational Innovations!

The successful member party experiments with various organizational innovations. Some measures, from which a few are discussed and already partially implemented by some parties, might include the following.[17]

Welcoming and winning back members: Joining and leaving a party are key moments in the lives of all party members. Hence, the “onboarding” as well as the “offboarding” process should not be merely muddling through. Instead, it demands a proper organization. How are new members introduced into the party? And what happens if a party member quits? Is there a procedure to win him or her back? Volunteering “member managers” located at the local party level could ensure both the welcoming of new and the recovery of former members.

Establishing varying forms of membership: The formal membership constitutes the right to influence the course of the party. What is important is that the benefit of a full membership is not undermined by alternatives such as guest memberships. Consequently, guest members are usually equipped with limited rights (e.g., they are typically excluded from intra-party votes and ballots). The same holds for the participation of non-members.[18] Another supplement could be project-related forms of membership. Further reforms might concern the fee.[19] Some parties already offer reductions for apprentices, the unemployed, or retired people. The CSU grants preferred rates for families. An ultimate option would be the abolition of fees.[20]

Representing societal diversity: “Catch-all” member parties are expected to represent the society in which they live. Hence, as the make-up of German society changes, diversity strategies become more and more important. Within parties, diversity can be achieved by different instruments. As pointed out, intra-party quotas for women are already broadly implemented. Analogous measures for young people or for people with a migration background are consistently discussed.[21] However, irrespective of quotas—which may not be equally adequate for all parties—the targeting and promotion of those groups by mentoring programs, multilingual information material, and campaigning is an indispensable task to make the party more attractive to a range of societal groups.[22]

Giving information and obtaining feedback: Member parties have to know their affiliates. Thus, both giving information and gathering feedback are crucial traits. The basic condition is an effective and to a certain degree centralized membership administration. Party apps for smart phones offer opportunities to inform and mobilize members via push messages and tickers. Additionally, personalized, issue-oriented, and region-specific information can be delivered. Surveys can be conducted to obtain feedback. At the same time, a party app would allow members to easily update their contact details, policy interests, and other information on a low-threshold level.[23]

Advancing architectures of participation: Participation is at the heart of the member party. While most German parties have introduced and recently executed ballots, none of them gives the full range of rights to their members. Ballots are predominantly restricted to certain topics and are either consultative or binding. Expanding members’ rights to more objects of decision-making could be one option to advance architectures of participation. Digital tools might enlarge the participating group. Just as important—although often ignored—is the compliance with basic quality aspects such as accessibility for members, the establishment of rules of procedure in the party statutes, or the transparency of the process[24]

Facilitating and honoring commitment: The member party is dependent on its members’ voluntary commitment. Since this resource is becoming scarce, commitment must be actively facilitated and recognized. By supplying services such as a commitment hotline or a website, the allocation of work equipment (e.g., stationery, electronic devices), or the reimbursement of travel expenses, parties can support its nonpaid operatives. The individual benefit for volunteering members could be increased by issuing certificates that document skills and acquired competencies.

Reviewing organizational rules and routines: Like any other organization, every political party has its own culture embodied in written and unwritten rules, procedures, symbols, habits, and routines. It is the glue unifying a range of different people under the umbrella of the party organization. However, they can also have dysfunctions.[25] To pick one aspect, sessions of local party branches usually follow a more or less standardized script, which guarantees a smooth and efficient course of discussion and decision-making. However, for many party members it tends to be a rather boring business. Proposals of improvement aim to lend variety and to enhance the dramaturgy of debates by making use of professional moderation, visualization, and documentation. Time limits make sessions calculable, and rotating dates allow people with unusual working hours or families to join the meetings now and then. Location plays a role, too, for example, regarding reachability by local traffic and accessibility for disabled persons.

Offering opportunities for sociability: By most of their members, parties are not only seen as machines for the achievement of mandates and the enforcement of their interests, but also as social organizations. Parties will fail if they want to tie their members only by rational arguments because parties are expected to offer opportunities for sociability. This human need can be provided by social events such as excursions, regulars’ tables, and barbeques. Despite all online activities, parties rely on face-to-face communication and community beyond the virtual space.

 Draw Lessons from Experience!

The successful member party is a learning party. Both parties from abroad and domestic parties can function as sources of innovation.[26] Especially state and local party units are important laboratories for innovation within their national party organization, spreading by mechanisms of intra-party policy transfer. Party primaries for the nomination of party chairs and leading candidates are good examples of how German parties have learned and still learn from their own and each other’s experiences.[27] Systematic learning from both failure and success is thus a key strategy for organizational innovation and reform in all parties.

 Respect Members’ Normative Expectations and Lines of Tradition!

The successful member party respects the expectations of its members and its lines of tradition. Research indicates that—despite some overarching trends—the members of different parties hold considerable varying normative and ideological preferences. That’s why specific measures may be more appropriate for some parties than for others. For example, in leftist parties quotas traditionally find a greater degree of acceptance than in conservative and liberal parties[28]; online tools that work well in the Pirate Party may fail in the CDU. Thus, there is no panacea—each party has to find its own way.

Conclusion: Accepting the Challenge

The model of the member party turned out to be one of the fundamental cornerstones of German democracy. Although sometimes lagging behind, the German member parties have taken the challenge and adapted to their constantly changing social, economic, and political environment. Recent reforms show that they are on the right path. However, they will have to intensify their efforts to preserve their privileged status in state and society. Although the sheer number of members will continue to play an important role, the quality of membership involvement will be by far the most crucial trait of future member parties in Germany.

Jan Schoofs, M.A., was a NRW School of Governance/AGI Fellow in October and November 2015. He is a PhD candidate and a research assistant at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen.


[1] The following considerations are restricted to the major parties CDU, SPD, CSU, Greens, Left, and FDP, with a special focus on CDU and SPD.

[2] For the concept of the member party in more detail see Elmar Wiesendahl, Mitgliederparteien am Ende? Eine Kritik der Niedergangsdiskussion (Wiesbaden, 2006).

[3] I borrow this expression from Klaus Detterbeck, “The Rare Event of Choice. Party Primaries in German Land Parties,” German Politics 22:3 (2013), pp. 270-287 (p. 274).

[4] Many European parties are affected by a similar trend. For an overview see Ingrid van Biezen, Peter Mair, and Thomas Poguntke, “Going, Going,… Gone? The Decline of Party Membership in Contemporary Europe,” European Journal of Political Research 51:1 (2012), pp. 24-56.

[5] See the prognosis by Nicolai Dose and Anne-Kathrin Fischer, “Mitgliederschwund und Überalterung der Parteien. Prognose der Mitgliederzahlen bis 2040,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 44:4 (2013), pp. 892-900.

[6] A more elaborated discussion is delivered by Elmar Wiesendahl, Mitgliederparteien am Ende? Eine Kritik der Niedergangsdiskussion (Wiesbaden, 2006), pp. 62-102.

[7] For the presented data see Statistisches Bundesamt, Ergebnisse der 13. koordinierten Bevölkerungsvorausberechnung, (2015), (16 November 2015).

[8] The role of seniors in the CDU and SPD is explored in Bettina Munimus, Alternde Volksparteien. Neue Macht der Älteren in CDU und SPD? (Bielefeld, 2012).

[9] For a more recent study with a focus on the municipality level, see Bertelsmann Stiftung, “Vielfältige Demokratie. Kernergebnisse der Studie ‘Partizipation im Wandel – Unsere Demokratie zwischen Wählen, Mitmachen und Entscheiden’” (2014), (16 November 2015).

[10] This data is taken from Annika Laux, “Was wünschen sich die Mitglieder von ihren Parteien?” in Parteimitglieder in Deutschland, ed. Tim Spier, et al. (Wiesbaden, 2011 ), pp. 157-176 (p. 167).

[11] For the different attempts of party reform see the detailed overviews by Elmar Wiesendahl, Mitgliederparteien am Ende? Eine Kritik der Niedergangsdiskussion (Wiesbaden, 2006), pp. 150-171; Uwe Jun, “Organisationsreformen der Mitgliederparteien ohne durchschlagenden Erfolg: Die innerparteilichen Veränderungen von CDU und SPD seit den 1990er Jahren,” in Zukunft der Mitgliederparteien, ed. Uwe Jun, Oskar Niedermayer, and Elmar Wiesendahl, (Opladen, 2009), pp. 187-210; and with a focus on online-participation Christoph Bieber, “Online-Partizipation in Parteien – Ein Überblick,” in Internet und Partizipation. Bottom-up oder Top-down? Politische Beteiligungsmöglichkeiten im Internet, ed. Kathrin Voss (Wiesbaden, 2014), pp. 173-191.

[12] The key role of the federal election in 2013 is highlighted in Karl-Rudolf Korte and Jan Schoofs, (2013): “Wahlprogramme als Gegenstand innerparteilicher Demokratie im Bundestagswahlkampf 2013. Beteiligungsarchitekturen im Vergleich,” in vom 31.07.2013 (2013), (16 November 2015) and Hendrik Träger, “Innerparteiliche Willensbildungs- und Entscheidungsprozesse zur Bundestagswahl 2013. Eine Urwahl, zwei Mitgliederentscheide und neue Verfahren der Wahlprogrammerarbeitung,” in Die Bundestagswahl 2013. Analysen der Wahl-, Parteien-, Kommunikations- und Regierungsforschung, ed. Karl-Rudolf Korte (Wiesbaden, 2015), pp. 269-289.

[13] Overviews can be found in Stefan Schieren, “Parteiinterne Mitgliederbefragungen. Ausstieg aus der Professionalität? Die Beispiele der SPD auf Bundesebene und in Bremen sowie der Bundes-F.D.P.,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 27:2 (1996), pp. 214-229 and Klaus Detterbeck, “The Rare Event of Choice. Party Primaries in German Land Parties,” German Politics 22:3 (2013), pp. 270-287.

[14] For data concerning the federal election in 2009 see Marion Reiser, “Wer entscheidet unter welchen Bedingungen über die Nominierung von Kandidaten? Die innerparteilichen Selektionsprozesse zur Aufstellung in den Wahlkreisen,” in Die Parteien nach der Bundestagswahl 2009, ed. Oskar Niedermayer (Wiesbaden, 2011), pp. 237-259 (p. 245).

[15] Women are underrepresented in all German parties (Greens and Left around 38 percent, SPD 32 percent, CDU 26 percent, FDP 23 percent, and CSU 20 percent). For the data see Oskar Niedermayer, “Parteimitglieder in Deutschland: Version 2015,” Arbeitshefte aus dem Otto-Stammer-Zentrum No. 25 (2015), (16 November 2015). The history and impact of quota is explored by Louise K. Davidson-Schmich and Isabelle Kürschner, “Stößt die Frauenquote an ihre Grenzen? Eine Untersuchung der Bundestagswahl 2009,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 42:1 (2011), pp. 25-34.

[16] On the communication strategies in the 2013 federal election see Matthias Bianchi and Karl-Rudolf Korte, “Die Wahlkommunikation zur Bundestagswahl 2013. Perspektiven der Parteien- und Mediendemokratie,” in Die Bundestagswahl 2013. Analysen der Wahl-, Parteien-, Kommunikations- und Regierungsforschung, ed. Karl-Rudolf Korte, (Wiesbaden, 2015), pp. 293-315.

[17] Most of the following ideas are results of the project “Legitimacy and Self-Efficacy: Future Impulses for Party Democracy” (“Legitimation und Selbstwirksamkeit: Zukunftsimpulse für die Parteiendemokratie”) supported by the Progressive Center Berlin, the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation, and the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation. The author was a member of the interdisciplinary expert group that developed an array of ideas. For the full-length study and a number of complementing papers visit

[18] The German law defines a number of limitations for the participation of non-members as pointed out in Alexandra Bäcker, “Dritte im Bunde. Zur Beteiligung von Nichtmitgliedern in politischen Parteien,” Recht und Politik 47:3 (2011), pp. 151-159.

[19] Most parties define a minimum monthly fee, typically ranging from €5 to €8 (the Left Party starts at €1.50 for people relying on welfare payments). However, in all parties members are requested to do a self-assessment based on their income.

[20] For additional reflections see Fabian Voß and Jan Schoofs, “Motive für innerparteiliches Engagement. Forschungsergebnisse und ihre Implikationen für die Praxis,” 2015, (16 November 2015).

[21] However, quotas are a controversial issue among party members. See Annika Laux, “Was wünschen sich die Mitglieder von ihren Parteien?” in Parteimitglieder in Deutschland, ed. Tim Spier, et al. (Wiesbaden, 2011), pp. 157-176 (p. 169).

[22] For more strategies for the recruiting and promotion of women see Laura-Kristine Krause and Jessica Dedic, “It’s a Man’s World – Frauen in Parteien als strategisches Zukunftsthema,” 2015, (16 November 2015).

[23] The importance of membership management is highlighted by Hanno Burmester and Laura-Kristine Krause, “Mehr als nur Plakate kleben. Warum Parteien eine Mitgliederstrategie brauchen,” 2015, (16 November 2015). Reflections on the “smart party” are offered by Henrik Schober, Jessica Dedic, and Philipp Sälhoff, “Auf dem Weg zur Smart Party – Digitale Ambitionen von Parteien zwischen Anspruch und Wirklichkeit,” 2015, online: (16 November 2015).

[24] Basal quality standards for direct member participation are discussed in Jan Schoofs, Sven Altenburger, and Jessica Dedic, “Auf dem Weg zu ‘Mitmach-Parteie’“? Herausforderungen und Maßstäbe guter Mitgliederbeteiligung,” 2015, (16 November 2015).

[25] On cultural aspects of party organizations see Hanno Burmester and Regina Michalik, “Parteikultur – Ideen für Parteireform abseits von Satzungs- und Gesetzesänderung,” 2015, (16 November 2015).

[26] See Bernd Becker, “Innerparteiliche Reformmöglichkeiten für die deutschen Parteien. Von Großbritannien lernen,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 30:2 (1999), pp. 447-466 and Karsten Grabow, Theresa Saetzler, “Parteireformen im Ausland. Ansätze und Erfahrungen,” Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V., 2014, (16 November 2015).

[27] The U.S. parties are traditionally the major reference point. See Sven T. Siefken, “Vorwahlen in Deutschland? Folgen der Kandidatenauswahl nach U.S.-Vorbild,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 33:3 (2002), pp. 531-550.

[28] See for the data Annika Laux, “Was wünschen sich die Mitglieder von ihren Parteien?” in Parteimitglieder in Deutschland, ed. Tim Spier, et al. (Wiesbaden, 2011), pp. 157-176 (p. 169).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.