Let’s say you are eligible to vote in the German election on September 24, and your opinions include the following: to overcome the controversy about pay differentials between men and women, you want to tie manager salaries to bra-cup size; you also demand a reallocation of your hard-earned tax money from “cougar pensions” to “MILF handouts” to subsidize young mothers; and you want a price ceiling on beer according to a ratio of thirst to empty glasses. You are in luck, because there is a party for you. It’s called The PARTY (Die PARTEI), a backronym in German for Party for Labor, Rule of Law, Animal Protection, Promotion of Elites and Grassroots Democratic Initiatives. (More details about it below.)
Satirical it may be, but The PARTY has the same rights as all the other parties in the German spectrum, and there are 34 in total to choose from. To someone accustomed to the American two-party system, this might seem a bit crowded. But in Germany this is democracy as its post-war founders imagined it, with all views and social currents, serious or not, represented. There is a party for more vegans in the federal government, for more adherence to the Bible, for a basic universal income, for senior-citizen visibility, hip hop, gardening in Magdeburg or happiness for all of humanity.
To prevent chaos – and the framers of the 1949 constitution had the Weimar Republic in mind – most of these parties won’t actually make it into the Bundestag. That’s because the threshold for a party to win a seat in parliament is either 5 percent of votes, or three districts won via direct mandates. Based on all current polls, only seven parties will make it into the Bundestag: the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel; their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); the center-left Social Democrats (SDP); ecology-focused Greens; the post-communist The Left; the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD); and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). All the other parties combined are likely to share the remaining 4 or 5 percent of the votes, and so will be left out.
So why do these little parties even try?
“They don’t expect to get in — they’re not fools,” says Dan Hough, a politics professor at the University of Sussex. “They just want to try to articulate their ideas and get their point across. You have very few opportunities to tell the world what you think.” After World War II, Germany wanted as many people involved in politics as possible. Although Germans are “allergic to the far right,” he says, anyone who abides by the rules of the game can play.
The beauty of Germany’s parliamentary system is the spirit of cooperation it fosters. If the most popular party doesn’t earn more than 50 percent of the vote – and none ever has – that party must form a coalition government with one or more other factions until they account for more than half of the seats in the Bundestag. “If you go back to the early years of the federal republic, a number of parties were able to wield a certain amount of influence and policy,” says Charles Lees, a politics professor at the University of Bath. “Since then these groups have had increasingly peripheral roles in the system.”
The Christian Democrats in particular have over the years been very protective of the right end of the spectrum. “The CDU is very effective in hoovering up the smaller parties,” Mr. Hough says, including the East German upstart Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening), where Angela Merkel got her political start in 1990.
But even if a party doesn’t make it into parliament, any party that gets more than 0.5 percent of the vote is eligible for matching campaign funding from the government. In 2015, 13 parties hit that threshold. So the German system simultaneously give small parties a voice while also shutting them out, Mr. Lees says: “It makes for boring politics but grown-up policy,” he thinks.
Downballot But Not Out
Dozens of smaller parties are also in the running in Germany's federal election on Sept. 24. Although these factions stand little chance of winning a seat in the Bundestag, political observers say it's the thought that counts.
And yet, new or small parties that speak to voters in the right language about neglected subjects at the right time can leap into the spotlight. The Greens started out as a fringe party in the 1970s, focusing on the environmental issues the SPD largely ignored. After the Green Party garnered enough support to receive federal funding, that directly helped it continue growing to be able to enter the Bundestag in 1983.
The AfD is following the same pattern: After emerging with a populist right-wing stance in 2013, it now is represented in 13 of 16 state legislatures and is almost certainly going to win seats in the Bundestag. “They’re tapping into an area of political controversy or demand that hasn’t been taken care of by the main parties,” Mr. Lees says.
Here are some snapshots of just a few of the other parties that won’t make it into the Bundestag:
The Pirate Party
As established parties were slow to pick up on digital issues in the mid-2000s, the Pirate Party set sail across Europe on a platform of internet freedom and information privacy. Within Germany, the Pirates were represented in a handful of state legislatures for a few years starting in 2009, but now only Julia Reda, their representative in the EU Parliament elected in 2014, remains in office. The party’s decentralized, anarchist roots allowed it to mobilize quickly and engage new voters, but lacking a core message and wanting for leadership, the Pirates have now all but disembarked.
The National Democratic Party of Germany is the most notorious neo-Nazi party in Germany, but much of its support in recent years has moved to the more palatable AfD. Two attempts to ban the NPD failed – Germany’s high court ruled earlier this year the NPD wasn’t popular enough to pose a threat. “It’s no longer necessary to ban these parties,” Mr. Lees says. “Germany has become more relaxed about political extremes and believes in the resilience of the system.” Although the NPD has never held a seat in the Bundestag, it does have one representative in the EU Parliament, Udo Voigt.
As you probably already guessed from the examples given above, The PARTY had its origins in a satirical magazine, called Titanic. But satirical or not, Die PARTEI won a real seat in the EU Parliament in 2013. Martin Sonneborn and his compatriots have established a platform that is deliberately absurd and often mocks the mainstream parties in subtle or unsubtle ways. Early positions included rebuilding the Berlin Wall and a war of aggression against Liechtenstein.
Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org