According to the Basic Law it is the task of the political parties to participate in political will formation by the people. As such, putting forward candidates for political office and the organization of election campaigns both have the status of constitutional tasks. For this reason the parties are reimbursed the costs they incur in their respective election campaign. The reimbursement of election campaign costs, a feature Germany was the first country to introduce, is now commonplace in most democracies. According to the Basic Law, a political party’s internal organization must conform to democratic principles (member democracy). And all parties are expected to acknowledge the values and structure of the democratic state.
Parties whose commitment to democracy is in doubt can, at the request of the Federal Government, be banned from participation in the country’s political life. However, such a ban is not automatically forthcoming in any sense. Should the Federal Government consider a ban to be appropriate because such parties pose a threat to the democratic system, it can only petition for such a ban. Any such ban may only be enacted by the Federal Constitutional Court after duly considering the individual case. The idea is to prevent the ruling parties simply banning those parties who might prove awkward in the fight for votes. In the history of the Federal Republic there have been few banning processes, and even fewer parties have actually been banned. Though the Basic Law accords political parties some privileges, these are, basically, means for society to express itself. They take full responsibility for failing at elections, a loss of members, or strife in conjunction with personnel and factual issues.
The German party system is quite transparent. Through the establishment of the Greens in the 1980s and, following unification in 1990, the successor party to the SED, a long-standing tri-party system has now developed into a five-party system. Alongside the “popular” parties CDU/CSU and SPD the “minor” parties also won a double-digit percentage of the votes cast in the 2009 elections to the Bundestag. With the exception of Bavaria, throughout Germany the Union parties, and they are both members of the European Christian Democrat group of parties, stand as the Christian Democratic Union. The CDU itself declines to stand in Bavaria, preferring to leave the region to the Christian Social Union, with which it is closely allied. In the Bundestag the members of parliament of both parties have joined forces to create a permanent parliamentary party.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany is the other major force in the German party system. It belongs to the European group of Social Democratic and democratic socialist parties. CDU/CSU and SPD support a welfare state. Whereas the CDU/CSU attract the self-employed, businessmen and entrepreneurs, the SPD has close links to the unions.
The Greens belong to the European group of green and ecological parties. The characteristic feature of their program is the combination of market economy and decrees pertaining to nature and environment protection that must be monitored by the state. They too represent higher-income voters with an above-average standard of education. The Left Party is particularly strongly represented in the five federal states that acceded to the Federal Republic on unification. In the remaining states as well, however, it is now represented in the state parliaments.