Parties see numbers fall as activism goes online
Germany’s electorate is increasingly turning its back on party politics, with membership numbers dwindling across the spectrum. Is this a sign of disenchantment?, writes Teresa Fischer
Long-serving backers of political parties can often look forward to a pat on the back after years of support — whether in the form of a framed certificate, a button on their lapel, or a handshake from the leader.
But for parties in Germany, such seasoned supporters are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. Party membership is sinking. The Social Democrats (SPD) had 460,000 members at the end of 2014, according to political scientist Oskar Niedermayer. By the end of November 2015, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper reported a figure of 445,534.
Their political rivals, the Christian Democrats (CDU), were also struggling to keep up the numbers.
At the end of November, 446,859 had joined Germany’s conservative ruling party, marking a drop of 10,000 since the end of last year.
The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, estimated its membership numbers at around 145,000 in December, down 2,000 on the same period in 2014.
Parties on the fringe of German politics — The Greens, left-wing Die Linke, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — also suffered losses.
FDP leader Christian Linder recently said membership in his party — which dropped out of the federal legislature after failing to achieve the necessary 5 per cent of the vote threshold in the 2013 general election — was stable at around 54,000. Nonetheless, the FDP had almost 1,000 more supporters on its books in late 2014.
Only the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party which has been climbing in opinion polls off the back of growing concerns over migration and terrorism, noted an increase in members to 19,000, according to the Berliner Zeitung’s report. The CDU remain optimistic despite its poor performance in recent months.
“Every month around 1,000 people join the CDU,” secretary-general Peter Tauber said. Tauber and his fellow Christian Democrats are focusing on more direct approaches to winning over new supporters and offering new forms of participation to make the prospect a being a member seem more attractive.
Above all, the party is aiming its new services at women, young people and people with a migrant background.
It remains to be seen whether this revamp of the traditional membership model will be successful.
According to Niedermayer, many of the reasons that put people off membership are out of the parties’ hands.
Class structures that previously drove membership are breaking down and inherited support for parties within families is becoming less common. But this does not mean that German people are politically disenchanted or apathetic.
“It is not the case that no exchange is taking place and no new people join,” Niedermayer says, adding that the number of young people signing up for membership is relatively high.
Nonetheless, the demographic tendency towards old age is reflected in Germany’s political parties.
Niedermayer says that 1.5 per cent of party members die on average every year.
“The parties first need to fill this gap before they can stay at the same
level,” he says.
But on top of that, sometimes people simply leave.
“It is not just the financial costs, but also the time and effort of going the long, hard slog through parties,” he says.
“If a young person at a constituency office has a look around and sees that the others are merely busying themselves with municipal sewage treatment matters and he wants to save the world, then that is not very enticing.”
Today, people have other options if they want to be politically active, such as online petitions, citizens’ initiatives and attending protests.
Many prefer to throw their efforts into one particular passion, rather than into an entire party manifesto.
The political party needs to adapt itself to new realities in order to satisfy people’s demands for more direct democracy, Matthias Hoehn, federal business manager for Die Linke, says.
The Greens, too, are considering new methods of participation involving direct votes on individual matters and membership surveys.
“That is how we want to win over new members,” Michael Kellner, political director for the Greens, says.
So it is unlikely that the political party will die out, despite a drop in numbers.
And general elections usually see a hike in membership, so the parties can look forward to a boost in 2017 when the country is expected to go to the polls.