Hans-Jochen Vogel, a Social Democrat grandee, dismisses the notion that people are tired of politics.
At a workers’ welfare conference in Cologne, this positive message flickers across a video screen, and goes down a treat with 25 new members of the party known here as the SPD. The brand-new party members, some in suits, some in hoodies, are wholly attentive, and are voluntarily attending a seven-hour induction seminar. Pensioners and students alike are bright and keen.
The SPD has made gains in the polls ever since it nominated Martin Schulz as its candidate for chancellor and now is experiencing a surge in party membership. Since the start of the year, more than 16,000 people have joined the party, more than during all of 2016. With 440,000 members, the SPD is now the strongest party in membership terms. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has 430,000 members.
“Many new members are coming in order to express opposition to Trump and rising populism.”
The Greens – weaker than ever before as polls show approval ratings of 6 percent – even have a record number of members. At the end of 2016, the party had 61,596 card-carrying members – a 3.67 percent increase on 2015. At the end of the first quarter of 2017, it had 62,132 members. The trend is strong and ongoing, according to Kerstin Andreae, deputy floor leader of the Green Party in the German Parliament: “Many new members are coming in order to express opposition to Trump and rising populism.”
The only way is up for the Free Democratic Party it seems, as more than 2,700 people joined the FDP this year. It’s a significant increase on 2016, when the party drew only 603 new members. Before that, the FDP was continuously losing members.
At the meeting in Cologne, new SPD members Laura and Thomas, both teachers, say they filled out their application forms as chancellor candidate Martin Schulz was delivering his acceptance speech as the party’s candidate. “He gives me a feeling I haven’t had in a long time,” Laura said, adding, “something simply has to change.”
Susanne, another new member, had already mailed off her SPD membership application in December. “First came Brexit, then Trump, then right-wing populism throughout Europe. It’s time to do act,” she said. Tim, her neighbor, agreed as both ate pizza with a local party politician. Tim, born in 1980 near the border to Belgium and the Netherlands, studied in Canada, and said he had enjoyed all the advantages of a united EU. “This Europe is in the process of breaking up,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
The Green Party organizes discussions with its new members as well. In a cafe in Berlin, top candidate and parliamentary floor leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt recently asked a group of new members: “Why have you joined this wonderful party?” Zoe, 23, responded that Brexit made her realize that the world “we learned about in history books” won’t necessarily remain the same. Other new Greens joined because they are anxious about the rise of populism, a break-up of Europe and the climate crisis.
But political scientist Oskar Niedermayer cautioned that this is not yet a boom. “Some time needs to pass in order to see whether the membership numbers will hold up.”
Moreover: With 65 million Germans eligible to vote, the new activists are unlikely to tip the balance. But Mr. Niedermayer predicted a higher voter turnout at the parliamentary elections in September: “In spite of the Schulz effect, which is ebbing, the campaign will probably be more polarized.” And that will have a mobilizing effect.
Heike Anger is a Handelsblatt editor for economics and politics, Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin, focusing on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change and Kathrin Witsch is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org