Germany: Second Order but still Ground-breaking?


Concurrent to regional-level elections in the state of Bremen and local election in nine out of sixteen states, Germany elected their share of representatives for the ninth legislative term of the European Parliament (EP) on May 26th. With 96 seats, Germany contributes the largest number of politicians to the EP. These parliamentarians are elected based on a proportional electoral system and in a single constituency. Plus, for the second time, there is no legal threshold for parties to win seats which means that due to the large number of seats available already around 0.6 per cent of the votes could be enough to win at least one seat. Taken together, these factors lead to high party fragmentation, much higher than in the national or regional parliaments of which the majority implements a legal threshold. Moreover, it provides a huge incentive for small and micro parties to run in EP elections; in 2014, 25 parties competed of which 14 won at least one seat.

Traditionally, and quite similar to other member states, elections to the EP receive much less attention than elections to the national parliament; for example, in terms of campaign intensity, media coverage, public interest or turnout (Reif and Schmitt, 1980; Marsh and Mikhaylov, 2010; Giebler and Wüst, 2011; Giebler and Lichteblau, 2016). While this second-order nature also holds true for the 2019 EP elections in Germany, the results might still prove ground-breaking as recent trends – losses of mainstream-centre parties, the rise of the Greens and a stabilization of right-wing populist success especially in East Germany – converge into very clear patterns.

Initial situation and electoral campaign

For several years, the German party system – once one of the most stable party systems in the world – has undergone significant changes with drastic increases in party fragmentation and electoral volatility. In particular, the centre-right, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), and the centre-left, Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) are losing voters in droves while the Greens, who have recently moderated their positions, have established themselves successfully as an alternative to these older mainstream parties. Since 2013, the rapid rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has brought the German party system in line with typical Western European party systems (Arzheimer 2015), further exacerbating problems for the centre parties and stymieing coalition formation. All these developments seem to be linked to more general societal changes leading to major shifts of political competition and cleavages with more and more focus on socio-cultural and identity-related policy issues (Franzmann et al. forthcoming).

These societal developments are accompanied by major internal challenges for many of the German parties. For example, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would not seek an additional term after 2021, and she gave up party leadership in December 2018, the result of which has been internal power struggles in the CDU. This internal power struggle was further complicated by the fact that the CSU continues to cater more and more to the to the (populist) right despite receiving the worst electoral result in a Bavarian state-level election since 1950. The SPD is in even worse shape after breaking their promise not to enter another Grand Coalition and continuing to suffer from leadership changes at the top of the party. Meanwhile, the AfD was hit by several scandals, many of the related to potentially illegal party donations and strong links of some politicians to far-right networks. Lest we think this is a problem with right and centre parties only, the socialist Left was harmed by Sahra Wagenknecht’s – one of the party’s most important and most visible politicians – efforts to form a left-wing movement similar to the “Yellow Vests” in France fizzled dramatically after failing to gain support even by other politicians in the party. In fact, the only parties that have managed to avoid serious internal struggles in the recent months are the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

In a situation of political change and internal party struggles, it was not at all surprising that the 2019 elections constitute no exception to the general patterns of second-order elections (Reif and Schmitt, 1980) as other primarily national factors were so important. Even Manfred Weber’s (CSU) candidacy as a German politician and Spitzenkandidaten with a substantial chance of becoming the President of the European Commission did not ignite a more intense public debate about European issues.

Looking to the major parties’ campaigns, CDU and CSU campaigned with a common and rather short electoral manifesto with a pro-European core. Primarily, they pushed to defend Europe and the European Union (EU) as it currently stands – campaigning against redistributive efforts and interdictions from the left as well as right-wing (populist) challenges. Controlling migration into the EU was a very central topic as well. The SPD, on the other hand, referred more to the European community and campaigned for a fairer tax system for large companies and more development aid in addition to border controls to decrease migration to Europe. The Greens, led by The Greens–European Free Alliance’s (G-EFA) Spitzenkandidatin Ska Keller, focused on more EU-wide regulations to fight, among other things, climate change and tax evasion. Somewhat similar, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) campaigned for a common law on migration and asylum as well as for strengthening the process of drafting a common constitution. At the same time, typical for a liberal, economy-focused party, they supported open markets as one of the EU’s central pillars. The Left meanwhile concentrated on issues like solidarity and more social justice–linking these issues also to ecological challenges. Finally, the AfD gave up its opposition to Germany’s membership in the EU for the duration of the campaign while at the same time clearly speaking against the allocation of any substantive competencies on the supra-national level. Additionally, they deny (any negative consequences of) climate change and limit the merits of the EU to merely guaranteeing free trade. In a nutshell, all parties campaigned rather close to their ideological core and the low media attention prevented much public debate between the parties. The result was, unsurprising, a rather underwhelming and unexciting electoral campaign across the board.

However, while the 2019 EP elections may not have sparked a tide of interest in European issues, opinion polls do suggest that the interest in EP elections has substantially increased in comparison to 2014 (infratest dimap, 2019). With the “Fridays for Future” movement picking up speed in Germany, and an hour-long video of Youtube influencer Rezo criticizing especially the CDU for their failures regarding economic inequality and environmental politics garnering more than 11 million views by election day, there seems to be some politicization going on in the younger generations and beyond.

Especially in the last months before the election, climate crisis, environmental issues and sustainability became very dominant topics. In May 2017, about 30 per cent of the population stated that environmental issues are one of the most important problems in Germany while it was only ten per cent at the beginning of the year (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, 2019). Traditionally, the Greens are associated with these topics and – in the eyes of the population – have high competencies to deal with them which clearly helped them on election day as many other parties were unable to present valid ideas on how to deal with these issues.

Election results and their evaluation

While the election to the EP was not central to public discourse – and perhaps not even to all the parties competing – it nevertheless took place in interesting and rather polarized as well as politicized times. All in all, 41 parties competed for seats in the EP – sixteen parties more than in 2014 and seven more than in the federal election in 2017. The electoral outcomes are presented in Table 1 and they are based on the preliminary results published by the Federal Returning Officer (2019). Turnout increased substantially to 61.4 per cent – 13.3 per cent more than in 2014 and the highest turnout since the 1990s. It seems to be indeed the case that politicization helped mobilize citizens to cast a ballot. Still, significantly less people participated than in the federal election 2017 (76.2 per cent) which is typical for second-order elections (Giebler, 2014; Giebler and Wagner, 2015).


Table 1 – Results of the 2019 European Parliament elections – Germany
Party EP Group Votes (N) Votes (%) Seats Votes change from 2014 (%) Seats change from 2014
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) EPP 8437093 22.6 23 -7.5 -6
Alliance 90/The Greens (Greens) G-EFA 7675584 20.5 21 +9.8 +10
Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) S&D 5914953 15.8 16 -11.4 -11
Alternative for Germany (AfD) EFD 4103453 11.0 11 +3.9 +4
Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) EPP 2354817 6.3 6 +1.0 +1
The Left (Linke) GUE-NGL 2056010 5.5 5 -1.9 -2
Free Democratic Party (FDP) ALDE 2028353 5.4 5 +2.1 +2
The Party NI 898386 2.4 2 +1.8 +1
Free Voters (FW) ALDE 806590 2.2 2 +0.7 +1
Human Environment Animal Protection NI 541984 1.4 1 +0.2 +0
Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP) G-EFA 370006 1.0 1 +0.4 +0
Family Party of Germany NI 273755 0.7 1 +0.0 +0
Volt NI 248824 0.7 1
Pirate Party Germany NI 243363 0.7 1 -0.8 +0
National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) NI 101323 0.3 0 -0.8 -1
Other 1334737 3.6
Total 37389231 100 96
Turnout (%) 61.4
Legal threshold for obtaining MEPs (%) none


Germany will be represented by fourteen parties in the EP – exactly the same number as in 2014. The pro-European party Volt is the only new party winning parliamentary representation—picking up the seat vacated by the radical right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). The NPD lost its seat as, similar to other elections in Germany in the last years, its voters move to the AfD. Of the major parties, there is only one real winner: The Greens, which nearly doubled their vote and seat shares. Clearly, this is in part driven by the increased salience of the party’s core issues. However, the party has also managed to become more attractive for (socio-economically) centrist voters in general and, in comparison to other German parties at this point in time, the party presents itself as rather homogenous and free from internal struggles. While the AfD, the CSU and the FDP also won more votes than in 2014, they lost in comparison to the last federal election which makes their success bittersweet at best. Especially the AfD which was able to mobilize many voters on the bases of EU-scepticism in 2014 (Wagner et al. 2015) did not really benefit from their programmatic shift away from European issues and towards topics like immigration and Islam (Giebler et al. 2019).

Without a doubt, the CDU and especially the SPD, traditionally the two largest parties in Germany, suffered heavy defeats. It is quite common that (large) parties in government lose votes in EP elections and that such losses are the highest in the middle of the national election term (Reif and Schmitt, 1980) – which is more or less the case for this election. In fact, when EP elections took place in 2004 right the middle of the national term losses for the then government (SPD and the Greens) were even more substantial. Nevertheless, the two parties can only be described as the biggest losers of May 26th, as their results represent a long underway trend of de-alignment from the two centre parties. Moreover, it seems that reasons behind this decline are manifold ranging from unpopular policy positions, inadequate assignment of salience to certain issues, communication problems and substantive problems of party leadership. To a certain degree, this also applied to the Left – the only smaller party present in the Bundestag which lost votes not only in comparison to the last federal but also to the 2014 EP election.

Again, a substantive number of smaller parties also managed to win seats (again) due to the absence of a legal electoral threshold. In comparison to the last federal election, this is the case for seven parties with a vote share between 0.7 (Pirate Party Germany) and 2.4 (The Party, founded the editors of a German satirical magazine). Most of these parties managed to increase their vote share despite the overall increase in turnout and two of them (The Party and the Free Voters) even managed to win an additional seat in comparison to 2014. This might be the clearest sign that, on the one hand, electoral systems indeed influence electoral behaviour and, on the other hand, that EP elections are second-order elections: close to thirteen per cent of the voters would have been left without parliamentary representation if the five per cent threshold used on the federal level would have been applied.

Finally, there are also at least two more important observations to make regarding strong divisions in the electorate. First of all, looking to the age gap in party choice, the Greens are strongest party below the age of 60 (roughly 25 per cent) but receive only thirteen per cent from people above 60. The CDU, CSU and SPD win more votes in the older generation – as does the AfD. This trend is not new, but it has never been so pronounced and it signals continued upheaval in the party system in the years to come. Secondly, while the AfD did not perform that well overall – or, at least, not as well to justify the populist tide rhetoric so often used in public discourse (and especially by the media) – they won the most votes in two states in East Germany and are close or above 20 per cent in all East German states except Berlin. In contrast, the AfD only won more than ten per cent of the votes in one West German state (Baden-Wurttemberg). The pattern is, although slightly weaker, mirror opposite for the Greens which do much better in West Germany. With several state-level elections coming up in the East later in 2019, if this pattern holds, the relevance of the AfD in East German politics is only set to increase.


Looking at the electoral results, the EP election provided some very interesting insights into the ongoing upheaval in the German political sphere. First of all, turnout increased significantly which is a good sign for democracy and probably also some indication that EP elections, or at least, international issues, bear some relevance to voters. However, the election was primarily influenced by ecological issues – whose importance is obviously not limited to the European level – which speaks in favour of a continuing substantive impact of the national arena on citizens’ party choice.

As interesting as these results are, even in their extremity, they are not completely surprising. The downwards trend of the CDU and SPD as well as the all-time high of the Greens has been foreseeable when looking to public opinion trends since 2017. The AfD did not strengthen in comparison to the last federal election but has nevertheless stabilized its vote share and is building up strongholds in East Germany.

Regardless of the consequences the results will have for Germany’s role in the EP and the policy implications, this election is another clear indication that the German party system, as well as parties’ attachments to specific societal groups, is changing. Due to the fact that these new patterns have never been so pronounced before, the election might still be characterized as second order but is also, to a certain degree, ground-breaking. Parties will have to react to these developments and Germans will have to get used to much higher party fragmentation and rather broad ideological coalitions on different political levels. With Angela Merkel no longer available for another chancellorship, the 2021 federal election has clear potential to not only produce interesting and very surprising results but also ones with far-reaching consequences.



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Heiko Giebler ( è Research Fellow e Coordinatore di diversi progetti di ricerca presso il WZB Berlin Social Science Center, nel Dipartimento “Democracy & Democratization”. È membro della facoltà della Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences presso la Humboldt-University di Berlino. I suoi principali interessi di ricerca vertono su comportamento elettorale, campagne elettorali e populismo, principalmente attraverso l’uso di dati di sondaggio ed evidenza sperimentale. È coinvolto nel German Elections Study Study (GLES) ed ha partecipato agli European Parliament Election Study del 2009 e del 2014. [foto di David Außerhofer]