Local and Interest-Driven Parties or Independent Groups of Voters

Lea Bosch, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Relevance of the Practice

Citizen-oriented local politics is characterized in particular by focusing on the main political issues of a single municipality, which is why independent groups of voters (i.e. Townhall Parties, Independent Voters’ Association, Voters’ Community, Voters’ Association, Voting Block, Political Union, Political Association, Citizens’ Association, Citizens’ List, Non-party members) frequently appear alongside traditional parties at the local level. These are mergers of individual citizens of the municipality to pursue certain municipal political concerns. In certain – mainly rural – regions (e.g. Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria), they sometimes account for up to 44 per cent of all local councils (Gemeinderat) and 24 per cent of all county councils (Kreisrat) of elected representatives in local governments and even provide mayors. They are to be distinguished from ‘Other Political Associations’ (Sonstige Politische Vereinigung, SPV), which are – according to paragraph 8(1) EuWG (European Election Law) – enabled to run for the European Parliament and are therefore not a typical appearance in local governments.

Description of the Practice

Voter groups are not parties within the meaning of paragraph 2(1) PartG. Despite the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany is formed as a parties’ state, the voter groups are authorized to take part in all elections to local governments, especially because of Article 28(2) of the Basic Law (BL).[1] The principles of universality and equality of election laid down in Article 38(1) BL maintain the right to nominate candidates in general; prima facie it is not limited to parties. Thus, in conjunction with the local self-government guarantee (Selbstverwaltungsgarantie) in Article 28(2) BL it is maintained that also ‘local voter groups pursuing only local interests [i.e. issues of a single municipality] [have] the right to nominate candidates and their candidates must be guaranteed equal opportunities to participate in local elections’.[2] In particular, they are to be treated equal to the parties with regard to their financing and tax advantages.[3] In general, the prerequisites for a voters’ group candidacy are a legal foundation, a proper statute and proof of the democratic appointment of the executive committee. Frequently, voter groups organize themselves in the legal form of a registered association (eingetragener Verein e.V.).

Local self-government has a long legal and actual tradition in Germany. Already during the Weimar Republic numerous local voter groups existed, which were then purely factual restricted to local interests.[4] This continues up to this day. It is in the nature of local self-government to depend on the support of fellow citizens and to require adaptation to the specific local needs of the community. Voter groups exist in both rural and urban areas, although their influence and significance in rural local government (RLG) is usually stronger than in urban local government (ULG). That is because well-known citizens, who are particularly familiar with their local circumstances, become more important in local politics as municipalities get smaller. Also, this increased influence in rural areas is particularly evident in the many communities where voters’ associations provide the mayor or in some cases even make up a dominant part of the local government. In large cities, on the other hand, groups of voters initially had less weight. However, current developments such as ongoing gentrification, the issue of migration as well as concerns due to climate change seem to indicate a change in ULG as well (see below).

Voters’ groups often arise from citizens’ initiatives, i.e. associations with specific topics.[5] The positions of voter groups vary widely and are both local and issue-specific. However, they do have a high degree of commonality in their advocacy of strengthening plebiscitary elements. In some cases, voter groups are a kind of melting pot of non-party, but politically interested and committed citizens who do not want to join a party but want to combine – usually – forces of moderate conservative (i.e. middle-class) opinions. Since local election law is a Länder competence, there are considerable differences in the legal bases for the participation of a voters’ group in a local election. The more personal the voting process is designed (i.e., strong elements of the personality vote), the more likely non-party candidates are to have a chance of success.[6] This is the case in almost all Länder-local election laws: They allow splitting and cumulating votes, thus highly developed elements of the personality vote are to be found.

Assessment of the Practice

Though municipal election turnout is declining,[7] most recent developments show an increased politicization focused on specific topics, which can often be attributed to emotional and short-term issues. Citizens’ petitions for referendum (see above) and citizens’ initiatives occur more often, proving the increase of participation in local decision-making in general. This may lead to an increased appearance of local voter groups or at least a higher involvement in such already existing groups. In addition, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, which thus struggle in fulfilling their constitutional duties (Article 21 BL) such as the recruitment of upcoming mandate holders and focusing on long-term issues. As voters’ associations gain relevance, voices become louder that demand the imposition of the duties of parties on the voters’ associations as well.[8] Actually, this is a purely local political phenomenon, but in the course of time, parties have already emerged from such voter groups, as only parties can participate in elections to the Bundestag or a Landtag (most prominent examples: Freie Wähler, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen). Thus, independent groups of voters can become highly relevant also for other sorts of participation.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Morlok M and Merten H, ‘Partei genannt Wählergemeinschaft – Probleme im Verhältnis von Parteien und Wählergemeinschaften‘ (2011) 64 DÖV 125

Morlok M, Poguntke T and Walther J (eds), Politik an den Parteien vorbei: Frei Wähler und kommunale Wählergemeinschaften als Alternative (Nomos 2012)

Naumann I, Wählerschaft in einer Parteiendemokratie: ihre Stellung im politischen System der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Springer VS 2012)

Reiser M and Holtmann E, Farewell to the Party Model? Independent Local Lists in East and West European Countries (Springer VS 2008)

Roßner S, ‘Parteien wider Willen – Von Wählervereinigungen und einer subjektiven Komponente des Parteibegriffs‘ in Martin Morlok, Thomas Poguntke and Jens Walther (eds), Politik an den Parteien vorbei: Frei Wähler und kommunale Wählergemeinschaften als Alternative (Nomos 2012)

Schiess Rütimann PM, ‘Gleichbehandlung von Parteien und anderen politischen Gruppierungen vor dem Schweizer Gesetz. Ergänzt um kritische Bemerkungen zum Erfolg von Parteilosen und von neu gegründeten Parteien‘ in Martin Morlok, Thomas Poguntke and Jens Walther (eds), Politik an den Parteien vorbei: Frei Wähler und kommunale Wählergemeinschaften als Alternative (Nomos 2012)

Vetter A, ‘Kommunale Wahlbeteiligung im Bundesländervergleich – Politische Institutionen und ihre Folgen’ (2008) 61 DÖV 885

Von Arnim HH, ‘Werden kommunale Wählergemeinschaften im politischen Wettbewerb diskriminiert?‘ (1999) 114 DVBl 417

[1] BVerfGE 11, 266, recital 24. Also, see above in section A. 2. of the General Introduction to the System of Local Government in Germany.

[2] Guidelines BVerfGE 11, 266; furthermore, with regard to groups of voters with regard to the generality and equality of the election BVerfGE 121, 108; 78, 350 (358); 99, 69 (78).

[3] Hans H von Arnim, ‘Werden kommunale Wählergemeinschaften im politischen Wettbewerb diskriminiert?‘ (1999) 114 DVBl 417, 421ff; Martin Morlok and Heike Merten, ‘Partei genannt Wählergemeinschaft – Probleme im Verhältnis von Parteien und Wählergemeinschaften‘ (2011) 64 DÖV 125, 128ff.

[4] BVerfGE 11, 266, recital 35.

[5] See report section 6.2. on Citizens’ Petitions for Referendum Against Essential Large-Scale Infrastructure Projects in Urban Areas.

[6] Martin Burgi, Kommunalrecht (6th edn CH Beck 2019) para 11 Rn16.

[7] Angelika Vetter, ‘Kommunale Wahlbeteiligung im Bundesländervergleich – Politische Institutionen und ihre Folgen’ (2008) 61 DÖV 885: the voter turnout in local elections is roughly at 45% (comparison: in federal elections around 80%).

[8] Morlok and Merten, ‘Partei genannt Wählergemeinschaft‘, above, 133f.