The Left—Ghost of the Past or the Progressive Left in Germany?

From the European perspective, it is a pity in a way that the Left Party somehow deadlocks the left party spectrum in Germany and keeps the German left forces away from coming back to government power united.

The second and successful launch of a red-red-green coalition in Thuringia, East- Germany, on December 5 has created a political landmark in Germany. For the first time, Die Linke provides a Minister-President to a German state: Bodo Ramelow. The head of the conservative CSU in Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, announced a new “calculation of time” for Germany and, in a rather scaremongering way, saw Germany nearly slipping into a new red dictatorship, as if Ramelow was a former agent of the Stasi, the state security service of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Seehofer’s secretary spoke of “a day of shame” for the united Germany; and the subsequent political fuss (or hysteria, in the words of social democratic chief Sigmar Gabriel) was amazingly loud. Weeks before the election day, the positioning of Die Linke with respect to the Unrechtsregime (“unjust regime”) of former GDR and whether Die Linke would clearly distance itself from it, had filled headlines, leading to a hairsplitting semantic discussion about how former GDR should—or must?—be entitled.

It didn’t help, as Thuringians were not scared: the party came out second with 28% of vote, second to the CDU with 33.5%. The SPD got only 12%, the Greens barely entered the Landtag (the regional parliament); whereas the newcomer AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) could proudly announce 10.6% success. As the christian democratic CDU had committed itself to by no means enter a coalition with AfD (tacitly regretted by some politicians, who want to keep that gate open for the party, after the natural CDU coalition party, the liberal FDP got only some 2% in Thuringia), the only possible governing coalition was red-red-green, meaning Die Linke, the social democrats and the Greens, with a majority of one seat only. This is not a real novelty in Germany though, as it had been tested out already in some minor local governments, and the senate of Berlin had for a short time in 2001/2002 a red-green minority government supported by the PDS, the predecessor party of Die Linke. But never ever has a politician from Die Linke governed a German Bundesland, even if some have been fancying this policy option for long—to move out of the alternativlos-setting (“without alternative”) of Merkel reign since 2005.

The 58-year-old protestant Bodo Ramelow, is indeed the man to test out this red coalition. Sympathetic and down-to-earth, he scarcely resembles a red Revoluzzer. Bodo Ramelow is from the West, not born in former GDR. He has a worker’s family background, no academic education, and has been engaged in trade union for years, before joining very early—in 1994 already—the PDS, the succession party of the communist SED, single political party of former GDR. All these features may predestine him for being a non-establishment politician, which feels fresh for a lot of people in Germany. Ramelow is not a wrangler, he represents the more moderate aisle of Die Linke, in counterpart to Oskar Lafontaine. He is not the brilliant intellectual that Gregor Gysi represents in the party; nor the social conscience and mother figure that Die Linke has in Sahra Wagenknecht; and neither is he the fresh dynamism prototype Die Linke has found in its new president, Katja Kipping. Bodo Ramelow is just serious. And so he started nearly without noise, just committed to do good work and to change the country for the better.

In this respect, Bodo Ramelow is rather the exception to the norm for Die Linke, in the sense that he is far from being radical in his positions. This stands nearly in contrast to the overall party, which has kept such stance on many policy issues that will make a red-red-green coalition on the national level—a nightmare scenario for many Germans—impossible for long. For instance, the party is not abandoning its refusal of all international institutions where Germany is a member—NATO, EU. With this, the party goes de facto against the constitutional and legal standards of the federal republic—and is thus barely eligible. Further, the party is strongly against all collective military missions the Bundeswehr could be engaged in, even if there is an UN-mandate, and it does not offer clear alternatives to dealing with international conflicts.

The other reason why red-red-green seems highly unlikely in the long run comes on the national level from the social democrats. Sigmar Gabriel has been missing a ‘red signature’ in most policy topics, from energy policy (defending carbon power stations) to trade policy (defending TTIP and CETA) or wealth tax (which he cancelled), much to the resistance of his own party. The stance in energy policy is obviously due to inner party tactics, where Sigmar Gabriel does not want to harm Hannelore Kraft, Minister-President in North-Rhine-Westphalia—a Bundesland, which is traditionally enormously important for the SPD and which (still) lives from coal and is dominated by the old energy giants such as RWE. Furthermore, many people in the Berlin policy circle were especially disappointed during a public discussion Sigmar Gabriel prominently had with Thomas Piketty, where he waved aside any idea of wealth tax. In this respect, the SPD has ceased to be a left party, and is not occupying the political space in a truly social-democratic way. The only ‘left’ achievement the SPD can point to in recent months is the introduction of a minimum wage of EUR 8.50, after endless battles within the great coalition and with the trade unions— which are herewith losing their key sovereignty to negotiate wages within the German system of Tarifhoheit (the independent negotiation system between employers association and trade unions structured by industry branches, and which is a traditional stand-alone feature in German working relations): as much as trade unions welcomed the minimum wage, as much they do suffer from this de facto structural disempowerment.

In reaction, some SPD members have recently started a “left platform” (Magdeburger Plattform) against its own party head, in order to politically conquer left territory again. It seems evident to many social democrats that Die Linke is the winner of Gabriel’s shift to the right, which also does not correspond to the quite leftist campaigning slogans (“more taxes for the wealthy”) the SPD had in the national elections of 2013. The SPD being locked in a great coalition and politically squeezed in a position between the conservative CDU and Die Linke might reveal as one of the biggest political tragedies for the party, which is losing contours—and votes. De facto, the SPD sits in 14 out of 16 Landtage (in various constellations), without gaining any political visibility: a tragedy not only for the party, but also for the German left in total—the left participates in barely any coalition and thus consequently has no governing option in the near future; whereas Angela Merkel, pragmatic as can be, is already reaching out to the Greens to open up a possible coalition option beyond great coalition and without needing AfD for the national elections in 2017. It is a flirt based on mutuality from many Greens, as the Greens are actually fiscally more conservative than large parts of the SPD and, this is a party of “better-earners” who have no blue-collar, unemployed or precarious electorate to cater to with redistribution or social policies.

In the middle of all these tactical games shaping the run for the 2017 elections, Die Linke can sit this out. Without coming close to (or even denying) government responsibility except Thuringia, it can use its clear left positioning and profile to steal voters from the social democrats in order to continuously disturb the left camp, and in a way, keep it away from uniting precisely in the Thuringia way: left-left-Green. In a way The Left, being probably the only party of the three which puts program before government, has nothing to lose.

The real risk for the Left might, indeed, be to loss of its place as the only real protest German party to AfD, which is competing for this political space too: les extremes se touchent… A shift of votes, as bizarre as it may sound, can be observed from The Left to AfD. It is also interesting that AfD voters and voters of Die Linke tend to converge in their opinion more than the other parties, e.g. when it comes to opinions on Islam, migration etc. The AfD may unfold as the more ‘hipster’ protest party, which can also fit into the rather bourgeois establishment of Germany, being a party run by professors, such as its President Bernd Lucke, former president of BDI, the prominent German Industry Association. This gives the party a sort of distinguished touch and make it salonfähig, all the while keeping its anti-euro, anti-migration and anti-establishment policy profile attractive for the lowest quintal of German society.

The Left also displays populist features. A recent opinion poll on whether or not Islam belongs to Germany, found that for a majority of voters of The Left (58%) Islam does not belong in Germany, which is—although displaying a huge discrepancy in the numbers—the second ranking of all German parties after the AfD-voters (96%). All other party voters do not display majorities on this question, although the CDU comes very close (for 49% of CDU voters believe that Islam does not belong in Germany), whereas other party voters only reach pluralities on this question (SPD: 38%; Greens: 26%).

Similarly—and again despite a huge difference in the numbers—with 21% the Left ranks second after AfD (70%) when it comes to sympathy for Pegida, the new anti-Islam movement of Germany, which is organizing demonstrations every Monday, especially in Dresden. The Left thus also seems to slightly move out of the German mainstream on the question of Islam and migration and to flirt with right-wing populism; while, on core economic and financial policy issues such as the euro and on foreign and security questions, it is placing itself at the extreme left of the political spectrum.

From the European perspective, which currently sees a growing left and anti-austerity movements throughout the EU, it is a pity in a way that the Left Party somehow deadlocks the left party spectrum in Germany and keeps the German left forces away from coming back to government power united: by insisting on irrational positions with respect to the EU, NATO or the UN. As a matter of fact, during the eurocrisis, the Left was the party whose politicians came closest to the reading and analysis many non-Germans had of the political economy of the eurozone: that Germany’s trade deficit is a problem; that Germany would need to increase its demand; that Germany is doing ‘beggar-thyneighbor- policy’ and wage-dumping, which are all taboo-positions for the German political mainstream. It could probably help balancing out the current German position on the euro-crisis and austerity policy, had the Left more political weight in Germany. The Left could accommodate the political economy arguments of Germany’s neighbors and fellow European countries and serve as an intellectual carrier for an aggregated European view on how the political and social economy of eurozone should be handled. Doing so, the Left could demonstrate that Germany gives an ear to the political concerns of its neighbors and contribute to attenuate the current discussion about the crude German hegemonic position in Europe. But the Left is still kept out of policy making in Germany—and this will last until the party moves out of having its head-in-the-sand attitude.

Ulrike Guérot

Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin. This text has been written for Eutopia Magazine—creative commons, a project of the publishing houses Galaxia Gutenberg, S. Fischer, Laterza und Seuil, in cooperation with TIM: www.eutopiamagazine.eu.

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