The Bundestag election in September 2013 produced both stability and astonishing change in the German party system. While neither the relative vote shares of the two major parties nor the east-west divide in the party system have seen any alteration, the 2013 election still witnessed historic change: the plummeting of the Free Democrats (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) and the amazing rise of a new formation, the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD). The AfD is a unique mix, combining pro-market economic orthodoxy, traditional values and opposition to immigration with an academic style of argumentation.

The upsurge of the AfD and fall of the FDP can be understood as an interplay of changes in the German electoral system with the more usual factors of political program and strategy. The election results raised the question of whether the venerable FDP could really disappear, allowing the AfD to establish itself as a right-wing populist outlier in the German party system.

The German electoral system and its recent changes

The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, is elected through a mixed-member proportional system with a nationwide 5 per cent threshold. Voters cast two votes, one for a candidate in a single-member district and a second for a closed party list at the Land (province) level. This system used to produce roughly proportional outcomes (see figure 1) since the allocation of seats to parties depends on the national aggregate of party list votes. Distortions in the votes-seats relationship were relatively low until 2009. Disproportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold resulted mainly from surplus seats (Überhangsmandate), which were relatively rare before unification in 1990 and exclusively benefited the two major parties, the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU, along with its Bavarian “sister party,” the Christian Social Union ).

These surplus seats are a result of the allocation of extra seats at the Land level when a party gains more seats in the single-member districts than it would be entitled to according to its vote share on its Land list, the extra seats temporarily increasing the total number of seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.1 The smaller parties objected to the fact that these surplus seats only benefited the major parties and successfully challenged this practice before the Federal Constitutional Court. As a result, parties that did not receive surplus seats are now allocated compensatory seats, effectively restoring overall proportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold.

This seemingly minor change had a significant effect when it came into force in the 2013 federal election, because it affected the strategic calculations of the two major parties. Previously, they had an incentive to urge voters to vote strategically by splitting their two votes – the single-member vote for the candidate of the major party and the list vote for a prospective smaller coalition partner (see box). This strategic advantage of vote splitting disappeared with the compensatory seats introduced in the latest electoral reform, a change that especially affected the fortunes of the minor parties.


The 2013 federal election results: Continuities and changes

German elections traditionally take the form of a two-party struggle for executive power, represented by the chancellery. Historically, only Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were able to successfully compete for the chancellor’s office, though needing the support of a coalition partner to form a majority coalition (given the elite consensus ruling out minority cabinets). Since unification, there has been an east-west divide in the party system.


Following a rather uninspired campaign, the clear winner of the 2013 Bundestag election was Angela Merkel’s CDU. The 41.5 per cent of the vote won by the CDU and the CSU – which do not compete against each other and have always formed a single parliamentary group – gave them 49.3 per cent of the seats, only six seats short of an absolute majority. Their aggregate gain amounted to 7.8 percentage points over the previous federal election in 2009 (see figure 2).2 In contrast, the second major party, the SPD, was not able to significantly improve on its historically low result in the 2009 election, increasing its vote share by only 2.7 percentage points to 25.7 per cent in 2013. The vote shares were anticipated by the pre-election polls, which showed that there was no popular desire for change in the chancellery. Yet the CDU/CSU’s near–absolute majority, resulting from a comparatively high number of wasted votes and a significant increase in disproportionality between votes and seats, came as a surprise.

The strong showing of the Left Party (Die Linke), now the third largest party, was also expected. As successor party to the former East German Socialists, it has gone through a number of transformations and name changes, the last of which was a 2007 merger with a left-wing western German dissident group from the SPD headed by former SPD chair and finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. Before this, in 2005, the party fell short of the 5 per cent threshold in the west, but was able to enter the Bundestag as a result of its strong result in the east.

Since the merger, the Left Party has gained enough votes in the west as well to be considered a genuine national party. Yet, as we can see in figure 2, its deeper roots in eastern Germany are still clearly visible in the 2013 election results (east: 22.7 per cent; west: 8.6 per cent), placing it well ahead of the Social Democrats in the former (East) German Democratic Republic. The strength of the other parties varies by region as well, with both the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Grüne) and the FDP much weaker in the east, and the AfD significantly stronger there, even surpassing the 5 per cent threshold.


When we look below the surface of these continuities and examine the minor parties’ results more closely, some fundamental changes emerge. First of all, for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, the liberal Free Democrats failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold. Second, the newly founded right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, fell just short of this threshold. While the significance of these closely interconnected developments was largely missed in media reports on the election, I suggest that there is much to be learned from a closer inspection of this change and its political, programmatic and structural foundations.

The decline of the FDP

With the FDP’s failure to pass the 5 per cent threshold, the Bundestag loses one of the pillars of (West) German democracy. No party has participated in as many federal governments for as many years as the FDP, which was often the pivotal player in government formation. Holding the balance of power, the FDP played kingmaker for practically every government formed before 1998.

Strategic factors constitute one element in explaining the FDP’s historic defeat. These factors go back to its outstanding showing in 2009, largely due to its firm campaign promise to support Angela Merkel. The context for the 2009 election was extraordinary in many respects. Voters were tired of the grand CDU/CSU–SPD coalition that had governed the country since 2005. The only way to avoid another grand coalition was to support a minor party in a position to form a majority coalition with one of the major parties. Viable majority coalition possibilities were very clear-cut in 2009. Besides a grand coalition, there were only two: either a centre-right coalition of the CDU/CSU with the Free Democrats, or a centre-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.

It appears that the voters well understood the situation. Both major parties lost ground, while all the smaller parties gained votes. The Social Democrats lost more than 11 percentage points compared to 2005, their worst result since the Second World War; Christian Democrats lost 1.4 percentage points, their second-worst result since 1949. At the same time, all three minor parties improved their results significantly, with the FDP’s share rising to 14.6 per cent, 4.7 percentage points higher than 2005 and its best score ever. The voters’ desire to avoid another grand coalition while keeping Angela Merkel in office translated into support for the CDU/CSU’s only potential coalition partner, the FDP.

Therefore, the FDP’s heavy losses in 2013 can partly be explained by its unusually strong performance in the previous election. Merkel’s supporters who had deserted the Christian Democrats in 2009 now returned in large numbers. This move can be shown by examining 2013 data collected in exit polls by Infratest Dimap.3 These polls indicate that while the Free Democrats lost votes to all parties, the largest group of their former voters (more than 2 million of 6.3 million in 2009) went to the Christian Democrats.

This shift was encouraged by the recent changes to the electoral law. Since surplus seats are now fully compensated, vote splitting does not pay any more. Nonetheless, as in former election campaigns, Free Democrats sought to convince CDU/CSU voters to vote FDP with their list vote to ensure a centre-right coalition. While in former campaigns Christian Democrats had tacitly approved of this strategy, they actively opposed it in 2013. This rejection by most high ranking CDU/CSU officials, including Chancellor Merkel, made the FDP (which was already faring badly in the polls and was perceived as being at risk of failing to garner the necessary 5 per cent nationally) and its effort to win these “borrowed votes” (Leihstimmen) look desperate.

The media drew attention to this divide between the coalition partners and speculated about Angela Merkel’s real coalition preferences, given the disappointment with the Free Democrats regularly expressed during the CDU/CSU–FDP government’s term, often compared to relatively smooth governing during the 2005–09 grand coalition. The Christian Democrats’ new position was fully understood by its voters: data from the Federal Returning Officer4 show that, in 2013, only 6.9 per cent of the voters who voted for the CDU candidate were willing to give their list vote to the FDP. This figure had been more than twice as high (17.9 per cent) in 2009.

While, as we have seen, there are institution-based explanations for the decline of the Free Democrats and the surge of the Christian Democrats, the additional factor in these developments is a political one: the rise of the newly founded AfD.

The astonishing success of Alternative for Germany

The breakthrough of Alternative for Germany, a party with a pro-market, economically orthodox program and a very academic style of presenting its positions, came as a result of the political weakness of the FDP and programmatic changes adopted by the Christian Democrats. The AfD, which was founded in February 2013 and began to gain real media attention only in May, managed to perform an unprecedented feat. No German party ever built a support base of nearly 5 per cent in less than seven months. The Green Party, for example, won a mere 1.5 per cent when it first presented a list in the 1980 federal election. And surely no other party attracted as many members and as much money in such a short time. According to press reports, by August the AfD already had about 16,000 members and €2.3 million in donations.5

The party’s policy proposals resemble those of the American Tea Party and most of the European right-wing populist parties. But to call it populist is to distort its message, or at least the way the message is presented. It has developed a unique, very calm, reasonable-sounding, academic style to promote its policies. Its primary focus has been on Germany’s position in the European Union. It opposes the euro bailout packages, going so far as seeking to reduce the eurozone to the northern European countries. These policies are embedded in a neoclassical libertarian worldview, well articulated by party leader Bernd Lucke, chair of macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg and head of the university’s Department of Growth and Business Cycles.6 His research framework in effect rejects Keynesian intervention in the business cycle.

Along with neoclassical economic orthodoxy, the AfD favours national-conservative policies and traditional family values. It is also highly critical of the free movement of people from the new eastern European EU member states, notably Bulgaria and Romania, and fearful of the arrival of poorly educated immigrants, particularly Sinti and Roma, who it says will remain stuck on the bottom rungs of society.7 These rather extreme populist assertions, formulated by Lucke as expressing a sense of social responsibility vis-à-vis immigrants so as to protect them from lifelong dependency on social transfers, are presented in the party literature and in Lucke’s public appearances in a calm, factual manner, in the manner more of a university seminar than of a right-wing populist street demonstration.

It should be noted that even though the AfD promotes a firm stance against the established political class and the traditional political parties, its leading figures nonetheless consider themselves elite, as reflected in the AfD’s emphasis on academic titles. In this sense, the AfD is not a popular movement; it is inconceivable that its spokespeople would campaign in a beer hall. Yet, at the local and regional (Land) levels,8 the party had to struggle with some members wanting to express undiluted extreme right-wing positions. While perhaps a contradiction in terms, the most appropriate label for the party is “academic populist.”

Further insight into the party is provided by the makeup of its voters. While the AfD was able to attract former Left Party (340,000) and CDU/CSU (290,000) voters, as well as nonvoters (210,000), by far the largest group came from the FDP, with 430,000 switching to the new party.9 The key to understanding these voter movements lies in recent programmatic developments in the other two German parties on the right, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats.

Systematically speaking, German policy space can be fit into two main dimensions.10 The economic dimension pits state interventionism against a neoclassical approach. Here the AfD occupies the formerly uncontested position of the FDP. The second dimension, which used to be characterized by social issues, has, in the process of deindustrialization and secularization, evolved into a conflict over authoritarian versus libertarian values.11 This is where the AfD has moved onto ground traditionally occupied by the CDU/CSU.

With regard to the first dimension, the AfD successfully exploited the FDP’s unquestionably bad policy performance in government. Having campaigned on tax cuts, the Free Democrats actually fought those cuts at the beginning of their participation in government in 2009 – with the exception of tax cuts for hotels! The media quickly linked this move to the substantial donations the party had received from hotel owners. FDP leader and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, in spite of his official responsibility for international affairs, devoted a great deal of attention to domestic politics. Most prominently, he launched a campaign against abuses of social transfers and in favour of a significant decrease in social spending. In a famous, and much criticized, article, he stated that “those who promise the people effortless prosperity encourage late-Roman decadence.”12

Westerwelle finally resigned as party president and vice-chancellor, passing both positions to Philipp Rösler in May 2011, but this changed little. The overall impression of the party’s four years in coalition with the Christian Democrats was one of continual battles with its partner with effectively no substantial liberal policy achievements. Most obviously, the FDP’s key promise in the 2009 campaign, broad tax cuts, never materialized.

In addition, the FDP’s role in government was severely tested by the euro crisis. On principle, the party should have opposed the bailout packages, leaving it to the markets to resolve the problem. But this would have meant breaking with the Christian Democrats, the majority of whom supported the bailout packages, and only a minority of Free Democrats were willing to do that.13

It was in this context that the FDP ran a bloodless campaign in 2013, opening the policy space for a new economically orthodox party, the AfD, formed as a reaction to the broad elite consensus that had developed during the euro crisis. With the FDP onside after an internal referendum against the bailout packages failed, only the Left Party remained opposed. The absence of resistance in the bourgeois camp left a gap that the AfD was able to fill – especially as its spokespeople were able to speak convincingly given their academic credentials. With the emergence of the AfD, eurosceptics had a credible pro-market alternative to the FDP.

In addition, changing positions by the Christian Democrats opened up space resulting in a considerable number of CDU/CSU voters shifting to the new formation. Traditionally, right-wing populists in Germany have fared poorly against the CDU and especially its more conservative Bavarian branch, the CSU. But the last ten years have witnessed a deep programmatic transformation, especially in the CDU. Under Merkel, it has abandoned many of its traditional conservative viewpoints. It has given up conservative family values,14 promoted the abolition of compulsory military service and, following the Fukushima catastrophe, taken an astonishing 180-degree turn on nuclear energy. These changes opened up space at the authoritarian pole of the authoritarian-libertarian policy dimension, serving as an invitation for those who sought to promote traditional values to take action to fill this niche. The Alternative for Germany was in a position to take up this invitation.

Filling a policy gap

In summary, the AfD’s rise can be explained by its successful filling of a gap in German policy space. First, none of the bourgeois parties gave voice to the widespread concerns that Germans had developed when faced with ever-growing bailout packages for Mediterranean states that many saw as a “bottomless pit.” Second, the FDP’s weak performance in government left many voters in search of an alternative pro-market party. While most of the former FDP voters supported the Christian Democrats in 2013 – in part because of the changed incentives for strategic voting under the new electoral law – many went to the AfD.

Still, the CDU/CSU did very well last fall, with its losses to the new party more than compensated by gains from voters coming from its former coalition partner. The emergence of the AfD was thus most of all a possible death blow for the Free Democrats. Had the FDP not lost voters to the AfD, the party would have been easily able to surmount the 5 per cent threshold and remain represented in the Bundestag.

Of course, this could be only a temporary setback. However, recent polls suggest that the failure of the FDP to gain seats in parliament and the rise of the new Alternative for Germany may herald a long-term transformation of the German party system. Both the Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany are at 4 per cent at the moment, with the AfD often coming out ahead of the FDP in the weekly polls.15 If this continues, the FDP could again fail to cross the 5 per cent threshold, while the AfD has a better chance of doing so.

More immediately, there will be four elections in Germany this year: the European Parliament and three Land elections (Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia). Currently the FDP has members in all four legislatures. Its long-term survival could depend on its showing in these elections. In the case of the EP election, minor parties stand a better chance than in the three Land elections with their 5 per cent thresholds. In a recent, highly debated decision, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional any legal threshold for the EP.

Since the EP elections precede the three Land elections, they could set the trend for both minor parties. The EP represents the FDP’s best chance, since all three Land elections will take place in eastern Germany, where the FDP is far weaker than it is in the west. Conversely, since the AfD is stronger in the eastern Länder, its chances of entering the three parliaments there are somewhat better. Should this occur, and should the FDP find itself newly excluded from the three legislatures, its future will be bleak indeed, and the place of this unique new player, the AfD, will be confirmed.


1  A very concise description of the German electoral system and its developments can be found in Thomas Saalfeld, “Germany: Stability and Strategy in a Mixed-Member Proportional System,” in Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell, eds., The Politics of Electoral Systems (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 209–29.

2 For this and all the following election results see

3 Results publicly available at

4 For the 2009 representative statistic see; for the 2013 version see

5 Der Spiegel 35/2013, p. 26,

6 For the English version of Lucke’s university homepage, see; for the party’s homepage see


8 See!121788 and

9 See note 3.

10 I owe the following ideas largely to Simon Franzmann, “Die Wahlprogrammatik der AfD in vergleichender Perspektive,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Deutsches und Internationales Parteienrecht und Parteienforschung, Vol. 20 (2014), pp. 115–24,

11 Herbert Kitschelt, “Political-economic Context and Partisan Strategies in the German Federal Elections, 1990–2002,” West European Politics, Vol. 26 (2003), pp. 125–52.

12 Guido Westerwelle, “Vergesst die Mitte nicht,” Die Welt, February 11, 2010,

13 Actually, the FDP was deeply split on the issue. The party organized an internal referendum, initiated by the eurosceptic Bundestag MP Frank Schäffer in 2011, on whether or not to support the bailout packages in parliament and government. With 44.2 per cent support for Schäffer’s position, the party membership can well be said to be split on the issue. In fact, Schäffer ignored the result and – along with a few other euro-dissidents in the FDP and CDU and all the MPs in the Left Party – voted against all bailout packages. See

14 Thomas Poguntke, “Towards a New Party System: The Vanishing Hold of the Catch-all Parties in Germany,” Party Politics, published online October 30, 2012, doi: 10.1177/1354068812462925

15 See