Germany has such an extraordinary level of institutional integrity and higher quality governance than virtually any nation on Earth. So I spent some time studying their system and contrasted it against France’s, which has a lot of features that are similar to the U.S. political system.
Germany’s Party System
Germany’s party system is usually classified as a moderate, multiparty system, typically with two large parties and 2-3 smaller parties. The parties compete centripetally toward the center of the political spectrum. Compared to France and the U.S., German parties are usually very strong and they control parliament and the cabinet with a high level of party discipline. This usually creates a strong majoritarian dynamic, but there are still many veto points within the German legislative system, which also adds a significant consensual element overall. This places Germany on the right-side (consensus side) of the Majoritarian-Consensus continuum for this variable in Arend Lijphart’s Majoritarian-Consensus framework.
The German party system is largely dominated by the following parties:
* Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU): want a “social market economy”.
* Social Democrats (PSD): much more concerned with social welfare of the people.
* Free Democrats (Liberals): Similar to neoliberal policies in the U.S., less concerned about social welfare.
* Green Party: Loose coalition of groups that don’t fit into the other parties. “Post-materialism” is their focus with an emphasize on nonmaterial well-being. They’re generally more educated and they’re obviously concerned about environmental issues.
* PDS/”Left”: Former Communist Party from East Germany. Used as a protest party. Often anti-establishment.
In recent years, the German electorate has generally been left-leaning in post-unification Germany. (Pre-unification was right-leaning.) Germany’s political system has also benefitted from declining divisions between the parties in recent years. Pre-1990 Germany featured more religious divisions than class divisions. The opposite is true today as a result of a general decline in industrial regions and a rise in the service sector.
Nevertheless, the unification has reduced many of the prior divisions. The Social Democrats have performed relatively better than Christian Democrats because of the declining religious community due to increased secularization. Unification with East Germany (filled with many more left-leaning humans) has also diluted the support for the more conservative Christian Democrats. The rise of the Green Party (slightly left-leaning) has also taken a substantial number of votes from the Christian Democrats.
Additionally, Germany’s electoral system is much more complicated than most countries, which impacts its party system in several ways. Some German elections are based on Single-Member District Pluralities (SMDPs) and some on Proportional Representation (PR), but the total outcome is proportional. Each citizen gets two votes: (1) district-based/winner-take-all SMDP-based vote (which determines 1/2 of the Bundestag’s seats–about 350 seats) and (1) PR-based vote, which is a vote for a particular party. (The other 1/2 of the Bundestag’s seats are allocated based on these votes.) The party that gets the most votes has a list of party members (the “party list”) which then go to parliament in proportion to the percentage of nationwide votes that the party receives.
Germany’s party and mixed electoral systems enable citizens to split their votes across two different parties. The first vote goes to a SMDP-based candidate who may belong to one party; while the second party-based vote can be cast for a different party than the party associated to the first SMDP-based vote. This situation often compels German citizens to be much more strategic with their voting. For example, the SMDP vote is winner-take-all; so, the citizens may feel compelled to vote only for candidates that have a realistic chance to win a plurality.
In contrast, the party vote is PR-based; so, citizens can vote their conscience to elect the party that they really feel should be governing the country. Because voters engage their district candidates in a winner-take-all dynamic, they often consciously or unconsciously expect more majoritarian outcomes. In other words, they often expect more decisive legislative action in parliament without realizing that their political system (and government) as a whole is actually driven by a more consensus-based system due to the PR-based voting on the other 50% of the seats and the many veto points throughout the German political system overall.
Candidates can run simultaneously in the SMDP-based election and for the party list election. Sometimes a party won’t win any SMDP-based votes, but can still win a meaningful percentage of the party list vote. This could result, for example, in a party still receiving 10% of the seats in the Bundestag even without receiving any SMDP-based votes. (This is good from a representativeness perspective.) “Surplus seats” are then added if one party wins more SMDP-based seats than its nationwide party vote percentage. This preserves the overall proportionality of the Bundestag.
Coalition governments determine who is sent to the cabinet to govern. A Constructive Vote of Confidence can force a new government to form with the new chancellor, but this tactic is rarely used, primarily because the chancellor and his/her party are usually fully aligned with parliament.
Finally, Germany has a threshold rule: 5% of party vote OR 3% of SMDP vote is required for any party to receive any seats in the Bundestag. This helps to keep extremists out of the political party system and away from government power.
France’s Party System
France has a multiparty system with numerous active parties (generally 5-7, but sometimes as many as 10 or more, as in recent years) and new parties rise and fall relatively frequently. Thus, for this variable in Lijphart’s framework, France’s party system tends to be consensus-based.
The French Communist Party before the 1980s was one of the strongest parties (second only to the conservative de Gaullist parties). After the 1980s and the collapse of the USSR, the communists have been marginalized. Compared to the U.K. and Germany, French citizens generally have much weaker party loyalty and much less party discipline. They often use their votes to send political signals to the candidates to punish and reward them. This creates a lot of political uncertainty in France from one election to the next.
In recent years, five major parties have dominated the French political system: En March (centrist and liberal), National Front (right-wing populist/nationalist), The Republicans (conservative), La France Insoumise (left-wing and relatively socialist-leaning), and the Socialist Party (left-wing, of course). The party system has historically converged toward the left of center, but relatively recent terrorist events, increasing immigrant populations, and other geopolitical flash points have caused the system to shift further to the right in recent years.
Most of France’s public offices are based on Single-Member District Pluralities (SMDP), although some districts are party list-based elections. All national offices are SMDP-based (i.e., winner-take-all). France’s Double-Ballot National Assembly elections often result in a bipolarization of the candidates between Left- and Right-wing groups because the electorate must eventually engage in strategic voting since only one candidate per district can win. (This is like the US.) This also compels weaker candidates to withdraw and combine their voters to give their party the best chance at victory (also like the US).
Big business and agricultural interests generally have the loudest voices within the French political parties, which tends to cause the parties to coalesce around business and agricultural interests. Most of the time, the smaller interest groups are not well-organized. This leads to periodic and relatively violent eruptions when smaller interest groups within French society reach a boiling point because they have not felt represented up to that point.
The French President has virtually all decision-making power within the executive branch, except when “cohabitation” occurs (which first became possible with a new law passed in 1986). Cohabitation occurs when the president comes from one party and the prime minister comes from another. This can happen because the prime minister must be approved by a majority of the parliament, but if the president doesn’t come from the majority party, he will be opposed by the majority party if he tries to appoint a minority party prime minister. This is possible because the president is elected by popular vote separately from the parliament.
Well, that’s all for this article. The more I study Germany’s political system (also see this post, which has a more economic focus), the more I believe Americans can learn from it. (The same is true of Switzerland’s system and all the Scandinavian countries, which has nothing to do with whether they are “welfare states” or not.) Soon I will publish a detailed report for which I developed some useful tools that makes it possible to compare the quality and performance for nearly 100 global governments within seconds. Stay tuned!