Seven minor German parties entered the EU Parliament after the 2019 European election. German polling institutes, different from their European counterparts, religiously insist on not publishing polling data for parties that reach less than three per cent of the vote. A well-established narrative claims that this has statistical reasons related to the margin of error—but, interestingly, this problem does not seem to exist beyond the Alps and Oder. Moreover, this problem did not seem to exist when the aforementioned pollsters rated the liberal FDP (RE) at 2% in the 2009-2013 legislative period.
Albeit, polling nerd sourness about German electoral culture aside: as there is no polling data available, this article seeks to find evidence on how support for the parties that have entered the EU Parliament in May last year has changed since then. Is there evidence that their presence in Brussels and Strasbourg has increased their vote share? Which minor parties, if any, should we keep an eye ahead of the 2021 national parliamentary election in Germany?
In total, the vote share for all minor parties outside of the German national parliament Bundestag stands at 6.2% in the Europe Elects polling average. That is up from 4.5% before the 2019 EU election campaign started two years ago. Taking a closer look at the electoral record of Germany’s minor parties, this seems to be more than just statistical noise: all of the minor parties in the EU Parliament have experienced a positive trend in electoral support on the local and the regional level after the EU election. Membership for many of these parties has also increased as well and their overall influence on the political system in growing.
Die PARTEI: Social Media Giants
Die PARTEI (NI|Greens/EFA), which was started by Martin Sonneborn as a satire party and metamorphosised into an environmentalist, left-wing, and anti-authoritarian party since it first entered the EU Parliament in 2014, was the most successful party during the EU Parliament election in Germany that is not represented in the national parliament Bundestag.
Their electoral success during the EU election has been continued during the subsequent regional elections in which the party achieved record highs—1.1% in Thuringia, 1.6% in Saxony, and 1.4% in Hamburg. While these results may seem insignificant, it needs to be emphasised that parties in Germany receive state funding if they pass one per cent in a regional election. This was, for the first time, the case in all of these states. The party remains successful among young urban voters with university degrees.
According to netzpolitik.org, Die PARTEI (NI|Greens/EFA) had 321,959 followers on Facebook at the time of the EU election. This number has increased to now 338,000. The two Members of the European Parliament, Martin Sonneborn and Nico Semsrott, reach their supporters and thousands of potential voters through social media. For example, Semsrott’s channel about his work in Brussels and Strasbourg has 184,000 subscribers on YouTube. Since the EU election, Martin Sonneborn’s Facebook page has increased its fan base from 257,000 to more than 300,000. Just as a comparison: Angela Merkel’s political party, the CDU (EPP), has 189,000 Facebook fans.
However, the post-EU election success is not untainted: the party failed to run in the Brandenburg regional election due to errors in the documentation submitted to the regional electoral office.
On 9 June 2020, Martin Sonneborn told the blog Ruhrbarone that his party now has 45,000 members. That is an increase of 14,000 members compared to before the EU election campaign and would make Die PARTEI Germany’s seventh-largest party in terms of membership—ahead of the right-wing AfD (ID) which claims 34,000 members. However, it remains unclear if this membership is real or used to troll their right-wing competitors.
Freie Wähler: Conquering Regional Parliaments
Freie Wähler (RE) is a centrist party that has its roots in local citizen lists in the rural parts of Southern Germany. In their stronghold of Bavaria, the party is represented in the regional government and achieved 5.3% in the 2019 European election. Across Germany, the party achieved 2.2%, which represented a new record high for Freie Wähler.
Since the EU election, Freie Wähler has run in two regional elections. In Saxony, the party achieved a new record high of 3.4%, compared to 1.6% in 2014. Because the regional section of the party did not submit the required documentation to the electoral office in Thuringia, Freie Wähler missed out on another potential electoral success.
In Northern Germany, and particularly in its urban centres like Berlin, Bremen or Hamburg, support for the centrist party is much weaker. During the Hamburg regional election 2020, Freie Wähler achieved 0.6%. In the Brandenburg regional election, Freie Wähler did not run and endorsed BVB/Freie Wähler, whose voter base and ideology shows similar patterns like the one of Freie Wähler but has a stronger organisational base in the North-Eastern German Bundesland. Subsequently, BVB/Freie Wähler surpassed the legal electoral threshold of five per cent for the first time.
In early 2020, one MP in the regional parliament of Saxony Anhalt shifted from AfD to Freie Wähler. As the party is preparing for regional elections in their strongholds of Rheinland Palatinate and Baden Wurttemberg just ahead of the 2021 national parliament election, Freie Wähler is represented in the regional parliaments of Bavaria, Mecklenburg Vorpommern, and Sachsen Anhalt.
Tierschutzpartei: Stability, Continuation, and Chaos
Tierschutzpartei (~ GUE/NGL), or ‘Animal Protection Party’, Germany’s most dominant animal welfare party, has a particularly tragic history in the EU Parliament. Their first MEP Stefan Eck was elected in 2014, but the success sent the party into a deep crisis. After only six months, Eck left the party. Tierschutzpartei once again became, as in Germany is referred to, APO—extraparliamentary opposition. The left-wing party descending into infighting about their position to the far-right and personal resentment between members of the party leadership.
Then, after five long years of APO, Tierschutzpartei took a chance at the EU election again. This time, the animal lovers competed against three of their off-splits: Tierschutzallianz (→Greens/EFA) or ‘Animal Protection Alliance’, Aktion Partei für Tierschutz – das Original ‘Movement Party for Animal Protection – the Original’ (*), and Partei für die Tiere Deutschland or ‘Party for the Animals Germany’ (*). However, Tierschutzpartei was able to rely on its imperturbable voter base: 1.4% a new record high with 2.0% in the regions of Berlin and Saarland. However, Tyche tricked Tierschutzpartei another time. Half a year after MEP Martin Buschmann took his seat in Brussels for Tierschutzpartei, it was revealed that he was previously a member of the far-right extremist NPD (NI). While the MEP emphasised that he does not subscribe to the ideals of the far-right party anymore, Buschmann left his national party and the left-wing GUE/NGL to prevent damage to the reputation of either group. As a result, Tierschutzpartei, once again, lost their only MEP.
The support-base of Tierschutzpartei, however, remains rock-solid. During the 2019 Brandenburg regional election, the party achieved 2.6%—a new record-high for the party on the regional level in Germany. While the party did not run in Thuringia, Tierschutzpartei received 1.5% in the 2019 Saxony regional election, which is in line with previous election results in the Eastern Bundesland. Tierschutzpartei struggles more in former Western Germany. However, 0.7% in the Hamburg regional election after the 2019 EU election marked their best electoral result ever in the Hanseatic city.
ÖDP: Diversification of the Electorate
For a long time, ÖDP (Greens/EFA) was seen as a conservative and even right-wing green alternative to Germany’s dominant Green party, GRÜNE (Greens/EFA). Albeit, ÖDP has become socially more liberal in the past 15 years. Compared to their larger green competitor, their political interest is more narrowly focused on environmentalism, biodiversity, and animal welfare. ÖDP becomes visible in the public sphere through their local councillors, political activism, or the initiation of referenda. This grassroots activist and green strategy have been paying off, especially in Bavaria. As the party opened up to socially more liberal policies and also became more visible on social media during the EU election campaign (before that ÖDP was largely non-existent online), the party became stronger in urban areas as well, which led to the best EU election result in the parties history in 2019: 1.0% nation-wide. The difference to its main competitor GRÜNE is that ÖDP rejects to adjust its policies regarding GDP growth, promoting degrowth to protect natural resources. Moreover, the party does not accept donations from enterprises, claiming that this preserves their independence from big commercial donors.
Just like Freie Wähler, ÖDP always had strong support based in the region of Bavaria. During the 2020 local election in Bavaria, the party received 2.6% of the vote, almost drawing equal with the liberal FDP (RE). In the capital Munich, ÖDP became the fourth-largest political force ahead of AfD (ID), FDP (RE), and Linke (GUE/NGL).
The electoral rise after the EU election manifested itself, on a much more humble level, also during the Hamburg regional election 2020, where the party received 0.7%—double of what the party usually receives in that regional election. Record results were also received in Saxony (0.3%), Thuringia (0.4%), and Brandenburg (0.6%). In Eastern Germany, ÖDP has traditionally been weak but has recently seen a growing support base in the region. The positive trend has also been reflected in the membership numbers: during the EU election campaign, ÖDP had 6,800 members while today, the party has increased that number to 8,035.
Familienpartei: No Electoral Record
Familienpartei (ECR) or ‘Family party’, is a Christian conservative party that is also a member of the Christian and rightist transnational party ECPM. It has a strong focus on politics affecting children, such as education, voting rights for children, and additional financial support for parents.
Familienpartei was represented in the EU Parliament from 2014 until 2017 when, similar to Tierschutzpartei, their MEP left Familienpartei in the middle of the 2014-2019 legislative period. However, in the 2019 EU election, Familienpartei regained its seat due to its rock-solid support-base during EU elections that ranges somewhere between 0.7% and 1.0%.
Since the EU election, Familienpartei remained largely inactive and invisible during elections. The support base on social media remains negligible—on Facebook, the party has only 4,000 followers.
On 15 June 2020, Familienpartei told Europe Elects that they have 679 members. Last year, Familienpartei claimed 750 members.
Volt: European Party Conquering City Councils
One party runs under one name, one banner, one logo, and one manifesto across Europe: Volt (Greens/EFA). During the EU election, Damian Boeselager was the first ‘Volter’ to win a seat in Brussels.
Ever since Volt ran in multiple regional and local elections across Europe, mostly achieving results between one and two per cent. Even though the party has a strong focus on European integration, Volt was, in some cases, able to improve their support base in elections after the EU election. For example, Volt achieved 1.3% in the regional election in Hamburg—compared to 1.2% during the EU election. In Munich, Volt reached 1.8% in the local elections in March 2020—up from 1.1% in the EU election.
The recent German record of Volt is tainted by the fact that the party failed to run in any of the regional elections in Saxony, Thuringia, or Brandenburg. The party’s support base remains limited to the university cities and urban areas of Western Germany. Albeit, the party is still very young and only recently created regional sections in Rhineland Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, and Berlin – where new regional parliaments will be elected in 2021.
The number of paying members in Volt’s German wing has risen. According to internal party sources, from 262 before the EU election to now 1,700.
Piratenpartei: A Sinking Ship
Piratenpartei (Greens/EFA), the Pirate Party of Germany, used to achieve up to 13% in national polls in Germany. Today, the party is almost insignificant on most administrative levels. In 2019, the party re-entered the EU Parliament after multiple prominent supporters, including their sole MEP Julia Reda, left the party over the course of the 2014-19 legislative period.
During all regional elections in 2019 and 2020, Piratenpartei lost voter support. The membership of the party has dropped from 8,215 in June 2019 to 7,599 in May 2020. Simultaneously, the party has been struggling with an electoral decline across all administrative levels. In all regional elections after the EU election, Piratenpartei Deutschland dropped below the one per cent mark, which paints a grim picture for the future budget of the party.
Notable exceptions to the continent-wide dusk of Pirates, parties in Czechia and Iceland have been able to establish themselves with a voter support base between 10 to 20 per cent recently.
In summary, it seems that the electoral demand for minor fringe parties is growing in Germany. The continuation of this decade-long trend could not just produce interesting results for polling nerds in the 2021 national parliament election, but actually attract the attention of the major parties. If they lose too many votes to minor parties, they could adapt their own manifestos to become more attractive again to voters who have gone to flirt with Volt, Familienpartei and Co.