The Party Competition Preceding the 2013 Bundestag Election: The Surprises Will Continue

Karl-Rudolf Korte

Universität Duisberg-Essen

Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte is Professor of Political Science at the Universität Duisberg-Essen, where he focuses on the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany. He is also the Director of the NRW School of Governance.

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The dynamics of politics builds.  Digital democracies challenge traditional ordering principles like time and place.  Thus, the parliamentary representative democracy suddenly finds its base and location challenged by a deluge of outrage. For a political culture in Germany that finds its basis on stability and predictability, this can only lead to irritation.  Only on one occasion in the seventeen Bundestag elections over the past sixty-three years has the result prompted a complete shift in power.  In 1998, the Red-Green opposition parties were put in charge of forming the government.  Party competitions indicate similar signals of continuity.  For over thirty years, the CDU, SPD, and FDP shared power, until the emergence of the Greens.  The Pirates, twenty years after the entrance of the PDS in the Bundestag, stand at the verge of nationwide representation in the Bundestag.  In comparison with other western democracies, all of these incidences share a unique characteristic: The comfortable approach of a catch-all party democracy.

This is ending now. The contours of new developments have long been observed.  Formerly large catch-all parties have continually shrunk despite victories in national and state elections. Five- and six-party parliaments have long forged a colorful republic.  Post-modern formation of governments (the minority government of the NRW over two years or coalitions that transcend party lines) and victories of mid-level parties (Stuttgart) indicate the shift.  Admittedly, the first push of the creativity did not last long.  Snap elections took place in short succession in Hamburg, Saarbrücken, and now also in Düsseldorf. Does that conclude the post-modern phase of party competition? Or will the short term, the volatile, the unexpected, and the permanence of dynamism remain hallmarks of German democracy?

The replacement of the formerly placid party system by a coalition and party market took place because of the voter. First of all, there are the non-voters; a group that expands when there is nothing to decide or no content or personally polarizing issues at stake. Their share of the electorate has continually grown so that increasingly fewer voters decide increasingly more.  Of those who go out to vote, many are shifting their party preferences. The share of swing voters in Bundestag elections in the past twenty years has doubled. Rational coalition voters in turn distinctly favor a certain government formation, reflected by their vote splitting. Their share also has clearly increased.  Non-political voters decide on their votes only a few hours prior to elections. They are like quicksand and can deliver defeats in races with tight majorities.  The trend remains: finicky voters vote!

However, that is only one side of the story.  In spite of the volatility of public opinion, measurable left-right preferences of voters remain. Nothing is as constant with voters as the intention to endorse the respective side of the camp, however sugar-coated they may be. The party bond—as an expression of continuity of social interests—still is more deciding of elections than the sympathy for people.  Consequently, voters trust reliable, recognizable orientation points and find the respective filter in the party colors.

Those who expect the unexpected will be able to strategize.  Governing coalitions with the Pirates can no longer be ruled out.  One may assume that the Pirates will be elected in 2013 to the Hanover state legislature. New topics require new configurations.  Strong commitment becomes evident in the dramatically growing membership of the Pirates, who are considerably more than virtual associations. The focus is not the genesis of a new policy area, such as internet politics, but rather the new online interpretation of all political processes.  The use of the internet plays a secondary role to the user’s position on the societal basic conflict between freedom and security.  One who lives in an online-determined environment alters the meaning of political topics, votes guided by differing concerns and perceives political relevancy differently.  The digital living-perspective is thus identical with politics.  One cannot formulate political options as generational program more attractively. Additionally, this is a holistic and experimental response to the acceleration of politics.  Members of the Pirate Party can use new software to practice low-threshold direct participation under real-time conditions.

Learning Organizations

The parties have always been the companions of change. They are ideally advocates of the citizens.  When society changes, then parties change as well.  That goes for the phenomenon of the Pirates as well.  This is the first party to emerge via communication technology.  Everything is developing more quickly than it did with the quasi old analogue development of the Greens. Learning through experience—this concept has permeated the exchange between parties throughout the German party democracy’s existence.  Seldom has this been so authentically, candidly, and explicitly propounded as by Peter Altmaier.  Generally, parties operate as topic thieves.  They attempt to jump on the train of topical issues when the opportunity presents itself.  Recently, the CDU demonstrated this dramatically following the Fukushima shock.  Everything indicated a desire for a radical phasing out of nuclear power, something that the CDU then also claimed for itself after it had, only a few months prior in the fall of 2010, extended the lifetime of nuclear reactors. One finds similar parallels in the handling of environmental topics.  Since the entrance of the Greens in the German Bundestag, all other parties have “greened” themselves. Nevertheless, significant differences mark the starting phases of the Greens and the Pirates.  Back then there arose a zeitgeist-inspired sense of newness, something that enlarged the party competition and simultaneously led from a grassroots movement to the parliaments.

Parties are learning organizations with an extremely high capability to adjust, especially in digital times.  Can we already see a learning process for the established parties with regard to the parliamentarization of the Pirates?  The theoretical learning tendencies do not regard power and interest as the foci, but rather meaning and ideas.  They ask who learns and what happens after learning.  Three differences can be used from policy research:

  • Simple learning refers primarily to effectiveness: For example, can the established parties like the Pirates organize election campaigns also in social networks?  How can parties improve their online presence?
  • Complex learning questions goals and action-prompting assumptions themselves: How do we know as a party, what the proper solution to a problem is?  How can we organize our knowledge?  More power relevant for politics is how they deal with growing ignorance. The handling of ignorance and cultures of ignorance will develop as a power and legitimizing resource for politicians in determining political decisions.  Communication methods must therefore be reconsidered.
  • Reflexive learning is learning to solve problems.  How can a party organization learn to learn? How can one improve one’s learning abilities? Similar to the Greens in their beginnings, the Pirates operate with extremely egalitarian demands. One would like to prevent the expectable emergence of an oligarchy (Michels) and similarly the bureaucratization (Weber).  Without a delegate system each party member’s vote possesses equal power.  And the means of participation “Liquid Feedback” converts communication right away into inclusive participation.  The organizational learning is consequentially subject to online conditions. The sustainability of the party and also the approaches to problem solving could be based on learning and acting flexibly and conscious of mistakes, which is fundamentally easier through technological deliberation rather than by analog methods. The quality of decision-making processes can improve in this way because the error consciousness of decisions would need to be communicated. Reversing one’s decisions is easier to organize online in a sustainable way than offline.  In order to avoid any misunderstanding: The Pirates themselves are also not currently optimally positioned in this threefold learning constellation. However, the learning potential among the Pirates as well as other parties arises with the emergence of the parliamentarization of the Pirates.

In the case that voters remain volatile, the moment of the party elite will arrive.  They must communicate new coalition patterns as well as any new government formats.  That is no simple task. Looking retrospectively at the last presidential election, the coalition politics remain in flux.  Through her involuntary caving to a Gauck candidacy, Merkel ultimately appeared able to form multiple coalitions.  Unplanned and coerced, she achieved the nimbus to have shaken hands with all parties, except for the Left Party.  On the main stage, the FDP meanwhile presented the stoplight coaltion (Red-Yellow-Green) as a new coalition possibility.

Contours of the Future from NRW

Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) always bear significant weight.  It is less the dominance of the voters than the quality of the party contest that to a great extent emanates from these elections.  New formations and contours of the future surface first in NRW.  This is the case again.  With five parties, a very obvious majority can be formed with traditional coalition parties.  Generally in the ten German parliaments with five parties Grand Coalition cripple the party competition.  Düsseldorf indicates this does not have to be.  Additionally, it became clear that approximately two-thirds of the electorate leaned left.  The SPD and the FDP could arithmetically also form a potential majority.  Many different ruling options may surface—but purely mathematically—since the SPD and Greens had already agreed to cooperate.  The coalition options for Merkel’s CDU virtually vanish from elections state to state, although the party, with its minimum wage campaign, has virtually abandoned practically all contrasting issues to other parties, and therefore is extremely pragmatic.

The minority government tried out new formulas for power over two years.  From that, a style of politics will remain that is more moderating than adversarial also in the government coalition. Sharp and brilliant opposition can be expected from the new FDP party leader, Christian Lindner.  The triumph of Hannelore Kraft shows what the SPD lacks for an aura of victory on the national level.   How to deal with the Left Party has been decided by the SPD in NRW.  The context of the industrial proletariat would have been promising for a Left Party that still possesses an understanding in the field of social justice. Voters saw this differently.  The beginning and the end of the west-Left depend therefore directly on NRW.  A Berlin opposition SPD will view this as very encouraging.  The decision on the original left idea seems to have been made.  Nevertheless, the Left can rely on its massive strength in the east to become the sixth party to enter the Bundestag in 2013.  However, the Left is downgraded in relation to the SPD.

That also holds true for the CDU. Those unable to provide voters with a power perspective will lose the ability to mobilize support.  Those who obviously appear to feel estranged from their purpose cannot function authentically.  Those who cannot effectively posture their position between saving and growth will be punished by voters.  This can be very instructive for the national CDU because these exact mistakes will certainly not be perpetrated by Chancellor Merkel. Norbert Röttgen was suitable as a contrast, which can be instructive although it remains a tough challenge for the CDU in NRW.  Now the CDU leads the opposition in NRW for the first time in two years.  That eases, in spite of difficult conditions, a completely new beginning.

The Greens proved that they have a solid base of voters in NRW.  However, elections are no Thanksgiving.  Voters never reward past service.  In the competition with the Pirates, the Greens, however, have developed ways to act aggressively and confidently—also a contour of new developments.  Otherwise, third place would be impossible to reach.  The Pirates gather support for protest in the center of society, indicating the quality of the democracy.  As a procedure party, they will surely ask exciting questions that could benefit the routine of the parliament.  When public outrage is moved into the state parliaments, this corresponds with the principle of the representative parliament. The upcoming government politics will signal many developments for the federal government. How will politics become capable of acting again?  That is the central question of the future in a creditor-democracy.

In conclusion, we should adjust to the unexpected in the future of party competition in a digital democracy, in which unleashed dynamics continue to gain speed. The political stability of our democracy is not damaged by these developments.  The parties in Germany remain extremely moderate and deviate far from anti-modern, right-wing populism.


 Prof. Dr. Karl-Rudolf Korte is Professor of Political Science at the Universität Duisberg-Essen and an AGI Non-Resident Fellow.


Additional Literature References of the Author

Korte, Karl-Rudolf: Wahlen in Deutschland, 6. Aufl. Bonn 2010.

Korte, Karl-Rudolf (Hrsg.): Die Bundestagswahl 2009, Wiesbaden 2010.

Korte, Karl-Rudolf: Risiko als Regelfall. Über Entscheidungszumutungen in der Politik, in: Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 2011, H. 3, S. 465-477.

Korte, Karl-Rudolf: Beschleunigte Demokratie: Entscheidungsstress als Regelfall, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 2012, H.7, S. 14-20.

Korte, Karl-Rudolf: Der Altmaier-Effekt: Was lernen etablierte Parteien von den Piraten?, in: Bieber/Leggewie (Hrsg.), Unter Piraten, Bielefeld. i.E. Korte, Karl-Rudolf/Manuel Fröhlich : Politik und Regieren in Deutschland. Strukturen, Prozesse, Entscheidungen. 3. Aufl. 2009 Paderborn/ Stuttgart.

Korte, Karl-Rudolf (Hrsg.): Angewandte Politikforschung, Wiesbaden 2012 (zus. hrgs. Mit Manuela Glaab).

Korte, Karl-Rudolf (Hrsg.): So entscheiden Parteien. Prozesse innerparteilicher Demokratie in Deutschland, Baden-Baden 2012 i.E. (zus. hrsg. mit Jan Treibel).


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