Rise of the Left Party: Germany's Election and Beyond
— Bill Smaldone
ON SEPTEMBER 27, 2009 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1945. After four years of governing as a junior partner in a “Grand Coalition” with the right-of-center Christian Democrats (CDU), the SPD garnered only 23% of the vote (down from 33% in 2005) and now appears to be a shadow of the party that had taken the reins of government in 1998.
As I have described in earlier issues of this magazine (ATC 112 and 128), over the last decade the SPD leadership’s neoliberal direction has cost it hundreds of thousands of members, destabilized its organization, and alienated wide swaths of its traditional working-class electoral constituency. It remains to be seen if the party will substantially recover as it moves into the opposition and licks its wounds.
The CDU also saw its support slip, if only slightly, to about 34%, but party leader and Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to form a new cabinet with the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP), who doubled their support to garner 14.6% of the vote.
Together the two parties have enough seats to govern, but their slim majority provides a meager mandate for drastic change. Hence both parties have agreed to a renewed commitment to the “social-market economy,” the German model of regulated capitalism that has served as the basic framework for left and right-of-center governments since the 1950s.(1)
The FDP certainly will demand reduced taxes, smaller government and more “personal responsibility,” but is unlikely to budge Merkel much from her recent centrist policies. A radical break could undercut the relatively soft landing that Germany has experienced in the economic crisis. Employment has remained steady due to massive government spending, and the social safety net, though battered in recent years, still provides substantial security for most.(2)
FDP leader Guildo Westerwelle, now Foreign Minister, likely will continue recent policies that dovetail with those of the United States. Germany’s military engagement in Afghanistan remains “a task of special national interest,” until the Afghans themselves can provide their own security.(3)
Parliamentary opposition to Merkel’s government is fragmented and weak. While the Social Democrats mull over how to regain voters’ trust, the Green Party, which had been the SPD’s junior coalition partner from 1998-2005, is shifting rightward. After winning 10.7% of the national vote (up 2.6%), “pragmatic” Greens in the Saarland, a small state in western Germany, have decided to enter into a coalition government with the CDU. Many observers view this move as a test to see if such a partnership might work on the federal stage.
Left Party’s Origins
Another major result of the elections was the strong showing of the newly formed Left Party (Die Linke), which gained 11.9% of the vote (up 3.2%). The rise of the LP is a specifically German version of the growth of a new socialist left in western and northern Europe. Parties such as the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, and the Socialist Labor Party in Norway are winning substantial popular support and are organizing internationally within the framework of the European Union.
Some of these groups, such as the Dutch SP, are former Communist Parties that now reject Marxism-Leninism but, unlike their counterparts in Eastern Europe, have not abandoned the goal of creating a socialist society and accepted neoliberal prescriptions. Others, such as the United Left in Spain, have developed out of newly formed coalitions of disparate groups.
These parties are united in their opposition to neoliberal economics, to the deregulation and privatization of the public sector, to low taxes and low public spending, and to the Anglo-American model of capitalism. Conversely, they support strong welfare states funded by high levels of taxation, strong publicly run health and education systems, controls on capital, egalitarian social policies, strong state support for the elderly, the poor, and the sick, and a well-funded unemployment insurance system.(4)
The German Left Party emerged amid particularly challenging circumstances. Tracing its origins back to the Socialist Unity Party (SED, i.e. the Communist Party), which ruled East Germany for 40 years until driven from power in 1989, it reinvented itself as the country dissolved and “reunited” with the West within a year.
Purging the SED’s Stalinist leadership and rechristening itself as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) did little to halt the rapid flight of over 95% of its 2.2 million members. Although the party did surprisingly well by winning 16% in East Germany’s March 1990 elections, it had virtually no support in the western parts of the country. Geographically isolated, widely held responsible for East Germany’s failures, and with its membership ageing, the PDS seemed incapable of reforming itself and surviving as a significant force.
The party survived, however, and developed into a major factor on the state and national levels. Headed by reform-oriented, middle-level former SED leaders such as Gregor Gysi, a popular charismatic figure known for defending dissidents under the old regime, Lothar Bisky, a journalist and skilled politician, and André Brie, a specialist in international relations, the party restructured its organization along democratic lines and distanced itself from its Stalinist past without alienating its core of loyal activists.
Organizationally, the PDS set up a variety of working and interest groups that give voice to competing ideas, themes, and approaches in the development of policy. These range from the radical Communist Platform to the social democratic Reform Left Network. Thus, unlike its Stalinist predecessor which smothered all dissent, the PDS is now well known for its very public factional struggles. Such openness may delay the development of clear policy, but it has also done much to make the PDS an acceptable choice for new members and voters.(5)
A New Political Agenda
As eastern Germany’s social and economic problems multiplied after reunification, the PDS won substantial support as a representative of regional interests and as a protest party against West German domination. At the same time PDS leaders recognized that, in order to succeed in the long run, they would have to construct a party that could challenge the SPD from the left by presenting an agenda that was opposed to neoliberalism and was committed to social justice and international peace.
During the course of the 1990s, the PDS increased its electoral support in the five eastern states markedly, often winning between 15% and 20% of the vote. In 1998 it entered into a coalition government with the SPD in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and did the same in Berlin in 2001. In the 1998 national elections its strength in the east was enough to give the party 5.1% of the vote, which surpassed the 5% threshold and brought it 37 seats in Parliament (the Bundestag).
In 1999 the party also won seats in the European Parliament for the first time. The PDS seemed poised to assume a permanent place in the German electoral landscape.
Internally, however, sharp divisions arose between the party’s 8,000 functionaries and moderate leaders, who believed the party should focus on parliamentary work and be prepared to join in coalition governments, where compromises are often required, and a growing left opposition, which questioned a strategy that brought the party into league with the increasingly neoliberal SPD.
In the late 1990s, the PDS left gained ground as the first Red-Green government’s domestic policy stagnated and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sent German troops into action in Yugoslavia. In 2000, it actually won control of the party leadership and it seemed like a new approach was in the offing, but this situation did not last.
In the 2002 elections, with the Iraq war looming, few voters considered the PDS as a realistic alternative to the SPD. Schröder upstaged the PDS’s critique of German militarism by opposing the Iraq War. As a result, the PDS failed to achieve the 5% necessary to re-enter the Bundestag. In the wake of this defeat and an internal scandal, Bisky and the moderates retook control in 2003.(6)
After the electoral debacle, the PDS seemed like a spent force. Although it commanded substantial support in the east, it still had no real presence in the West. In 2004, however, the SPD’s adoption of a clearly neoliberal domestic policy agenda radically changed its prospects. In the east people organized impressive demonstrations against reforms that they regarded as punitive, while in the west mass rallies reinvigorated the left.
In the spring of 2004, western trade unionists, former SPD members, intellectuals, and newcomers to politics joined together to create the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG), which, by early 2005, had about 5,000 members and had attracted the attention of Oskar Lafontaine, one of Germany’s best known Social Democrats and a major opponent of the SPD’s turn to the right.(7)
Lafontaine had been Minister President of the Saarland. A powerful personality and fiery speaker, he had served as SPD Chairman and as Finance Minister in Schröder’s first cabinet. In 1999 he resigned from all his posts in protest against the government’s domestic and foreign policies.
After the WASG and the PDS both failed to enter the state assembly in the May 2005 elections in North Rhine Westphalia, Lafontaine announced that he would be willing to stand at the head of a unified list of WASG and PDS candidates in the parliamentary elections that fall.
Left Vote Reborn
Although the PDS and WASG did not see eye to eye on all issues and had very different political cultures, with the strong support of Lafontaine and PDS leaders such as Gysi, the two groups reached agreement on cooperation in the 2005 elections and on eventual unity. Calling itself the Left Party in the western states and the Left Party PDS in the East, its platform demanded a repeal of the Red-Green anti-labor reforms, the introduction of a minimum wage, an increase in taxes on the wealthy, and an increase in public spending to promote domestic demand.
The result was a major victory, with the party tying the CDU in the east with 25% of the vote (+8.4% over 2002), while winning 4.9% in the west (+3.8%). Nationally it attained 8.7% and entered the Bundestag with 53 seats.(8)
Over a million former Red-Green voters had switched to the LP. Of these, 59% had done so due to the party’s position on social justice, while 42% saw its labor market policy as decisive. The party did well among middle-aged men, industrial workers, trade unionists and the unemployed.
Most importantly, it broke through in the west winning 18.5% in the Saarland and entering assemblies in four other states. Thus, by positioning to the left of the SPD and essentially reclaiming the programmatic ground it had abandoned, the LP took a major step toward becoming a permanent and important force in German politics.(9)
Although the WASG and the Left Party.PDS successfully merged in 2007, the road to unity was bumpy. As Christoph Jünke has noted, substantial programmatic and strategic differences divide many left-wing activists from the more pragmatic functionaries and parliamentary deputies of the former PDS.
As the WASG-PDS alliance began to come together, for example, it constructed a program that rejected neoliberal economics, demanded social security, radical democracy and demilitarization, but left many essential questions unanswered concerning the depth of the transformation needed to overcome neoliberalism permanently and the relationship between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means of doing so.
In a more concrete example, the PDS leadership (aided by Lafontaine) defeated WASG demands that the LP withdraw from its coalition in Berlin with the SPD because they rejected participating in any government “which carries forward or tolerates further cuts in social services, troop deployments, privatization, or limits civil rights.”
Jünke sees the former PDS leadership’s pragmatism, and their stress on recognizing the limits of what can be done, as a reflection of their deep conservatism and desire to find a place for themselves in the new German order. Unless the left can alter the balance of forces within the party, Jünke believes it will go down the same road as the SPD.(10)
Others, however, are more optimistic. Ingar Solty, for example, recently asserted that the Left Party’s rise is a symptom of an “historical break” marking the “emerging hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism.”
The LP, he argues, provides a political home for “fragmented and declassed” workers who, abandoned by the SPD, otherwise might turn to the radical right. Solty believes that, if it acts consciously, the party can use the parliamentary rostrum to shape the political discourse and “reform” and rebuild its class base.
Solty makes a strong case that the economic crisis has undermined neoliberalism’s grip on the public imagination and shaken the confidence of Germany’s ruling elite. He shows how broad swaths of SPD and CDU supporters actually back Left Party solutions to the crisis, and notes that even the bourgeois press admits that many Germans think positively about the idea of “socialism.”
Solty does not believe that the LP’s success is inevitable and he shares some of Jünke’s reservations about the party’s strategy. His stress, however, is on the ways in which the rise of the LP is part of an historic shift to the left in German politics that is still underway.(11)
In November, at the SPD’s Dresden Congress, new party chairman Sigmar Gabriel called for renewed efforts to win the “political center.” The election of left-wing leader Andrea Nahles to the position of General Secretary, however, indicates that much debate over the party’s future direction is forthcoming.
The LP’s showing in the September 2009 elections certainly will force the SPD to watch its left flank, but the LP will also face tough decisions. If, as Lafontaine claims, the party is “the only one that stands against the current system,” to what extent should coalition politics influence its future strategy?(12)
The LP’s electoral program — which openly asserts that capitalism is the cause of the social crisis and that social well-being and democracy are inextricably linked — has done much to push the discussion of an economic alternative among social democrats. It remains to be seen, however, whether this party can become the fulcrum for a reinvigorated left that can actually change society.
- Kurzfassung Koalitionsvertrag, Oct 27, 2009: www.cdu.de/doc/pdfc/091026-koalitionsvertrag-kurzfassung.pdf.
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- Sebastian Fischer and Veit Medick, “Merkels Wellness-Kurs stört Neustart der SPD, Spiegel Online, October 15, 2009.
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- Kurzfassung, 4-5.
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- Robert Taylor, “Europe’s Divided Left,” Dissent (Spring, 2009): 6; Luke March, “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (1/2009): 126-129.
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- Dan Hough, “The Programmatic Development of the Eastern German PDS: Learning from whom under what Conditions?” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 21, 1 (March, 2005): 144-145.
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- Christoph Jünke, “A New Formation with Potential Pitfalls: The New German Linkspartei,” Debatte 15, 3 (Dec., 2007): 309-310.
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- Jünke, 311.
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- David F. Patton, Germany’s Left Party.PDS and the ‘Vacuum Thesis’: From Regional Milieu Party to Left Alternative,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 22, 2 (June, 2006): 221-222.
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- Patton, 223.
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- Jünke, 314-319.
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- Ingar Solty, “The Historic Breakthrough of Germany’s LEFT Party,” Socialism and Democracy 22, 1 (March 2008): 1-33.
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- Lafontaine, quoted on Spiegel TV, September 27, 2009.
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ATC 144, January-February 2010