531.856 – that is the number of members lost by German parties between 1980 and 2007, which amounts to a loss of about 27 %. This development is, however, by no means exceptional. Across Europe the membership base of political parties erodes. But what does this change mean for political parties – and for democracy?
During this semester a Master course taught by us (Helge Staff & Georg Wenzelburger) dealt with problems like this and other questions concerning party systems and political parties. After thoroughly reviewing existing theories and empirical studies, the seminar now was happy to welcome Mr. Timo Flätgen, director general of the CDU in the Saarland, who agreed to come to the University of Kaiserslautern and talk about how his party copes with current challenges on the state and local level.
During an introductory talk and in the ensuing discussion Mr. Flätgen pointed out that parties change not only quantitatively – e.g. they lose members – but also qualitatively: While one or two decades ago many people joined the Christian Democrats because of their motivation to participate in local politics, today’s new party members have different and more diverse reasons. Many questions of the students took account of this and asked in how far social media could be used to let younger and more mobile people participate in party matters. Timo Flätgen explained how his party already employs social media but warned that in terms of content-wise discussions and democratic decision-making social media does not appear to be the best solution. Yet, with reference to the successful CDU campaign before the 2017 state election in the Saarland, Mr. Flätgen showed how a coordinated effort by the party establishment was able to mobilize party members throughout the state, who then engaged locally with the electorate.
Thus, and although Timo Flätgen also was not able to present a one-fits-all solution how to regain past membership levels, he showed how political parties can at least partially deal with the challenge of a smaller membership base. His visit to the seminar offered a great opportunity for students – and lecturers – to learn from him and to compare the academic theories and results with the experiences of a practitioner.