Reflections on September 26 German Election

Folko Mueller

November 10, 2021

This article examines the German General Election of September 26, with particular attention to the socialist party Die Linke, the reasons for its poor performance in the election, and potential ways forward.

The September 26 German election was a debacle for Die Linke (The Left)

U.S. socialists should care about Die Linke’s fate for a number of reasons: First, as socialists we are internationalists and should care about and pay attention to what is happening to other socialist parties and movements across the globe. Second, comrades coming out of the “Socialism from Below” tradition are organized within Die Linke. Third, while the U.S. first-past-the-post electoral system is different from the German system of proportional representation, lessons may still be learned about the interplay of electoralism and movement activity, lessons which could be relevant to the ongoing debates in DSA, for example.

Superwahljahr

2021 is referred to in Germany as a “Superwahljahr” or super election year. Not only was the highly anticipated general election held on September 26, but six out of sixteen states in Germany had Landtag, or state elections throughout the year as well.

Main Political Parties

A staggering 47 parties participated in the general election, but the vast majority of them are both statistically and politically irrelevant. Six parties, however, were serious contenders for representation in parliament:

Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Membership: 404,305
Readers of this site are probably familiar with the history of Germany’s oldest political party. It has reigned in a “grand coalition” with the CDU (see below) for the past 16 years.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — in Bavaria Christian Socialist Union (CSU)
Membership: 399,110
The CDU is the major catch-all party of the center-right. Its political outlook is a mix of traditional conservatism, remnants of Christian social teachings, and economic liberalism (neoliberalism). Angela Merkel who has been Germany’s chancellor for the past 16 years is a member of this party.

Free Democratic Party (FDP)
Membership: 66,000<
This is Germany’s Liberal Party. While it did have a strong “social-liberal” faction from the 1960 s through the 1980 s, it has for some time now been strictly neoliberal. It is typically thought of as the party for German “entrepreneurs.”

Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (The Greens)
Membership: 115,000
The original (West German) section of this party was founded in 1980 and has its roots in a variety of previous movements, including the antinuclear, peace, environmental and new social movements, as well as remnants of the New Left. A lot has changed since then, however, and this party can now only be thought of as “left” in the broadest sense.

Die Linke (The Left)
Membership: 60,350
The party was founded in 2007 by a merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which represented the remnants of the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, former East Germany), and WASG (Labor and Social Justice — The Electoral Alternative), which consisted mainly of dissident Social Democrats and trade unionists. This is the party that most active German socialists call their home, including several Trotskyist currents which have joined over the years.

Alternative for Germany (AfD)
Membership: 32,000
This newest party out of the six was established in 2013 as initially a Eurosceptic, pro-business, center-right party but has since steadily moved to the far right. Despite repeated denials, it has by now morphed into a racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic organization with open ties to other far-right extremist groups, which are well documented and publicly known.

How German Elections work

Germany’s voting system is modified proportional representation. Voters assign a first and a second vote in the Bundestag (federal parliament) election. With the first vote, a candidate from one’s own constituency is elected. The candidate with the most votes will sit as a member of the Bundestag. Thus, all constituencies of the country are represented in the Bundestag.

With the second vote, a party is elected, based on a regional list of candidates. The second vote determines how many seats each party gets. Here the party needs to be able to clear a 5 percent threshold or it will not be represented.

The only exception is when a party wins three direct mandates, in which case the second vote will be represented proportionally (minus the seats that were won directly). It is only due to this regulation that Die Linke is again represented in the Bundestag.

The candidate indicated in the first vote may belong to a different party than the one indicated in the second vote. In Germany it is not uncommon that they differ, as voters tend to vote “tactically” at times.

Election debacle for Die Linke

The election results for Die Linke represent a defeat of historical proportions, considering the relatively short life of the party. For the first time since its inception it did not manage to clear the 5 percent hurdle, tallying just 4.9 percent. It secured representation in parliament only by winning three direct mandates (constituency seats). You would have to go back to its predecessor party, the PDS, to find a worse result at the federal level.

Over two million votes were lost vis-à-vis the 2017 election, and about 1.4 million of them went to the Greens and the SPD. Die Linke scored significantly higher in the last three general election cycles (anywhere between 8.6 and 11.9 percent), and the goal going into this election was a double-digit result.

In theory this election was ripe for significant gains for Die Linke. After 16 years of a grand coalition of the SPD and CDU, both the German people and the parties involved were ready for a change. The coalition had worn itself out.

Furthermore, neither party can even be referred to by their historical label of “Volkspartei” (people’s party) anymore, since their electoral success of the past has been dwindling fast in the last couple of decades. The CDU still managed to get 41.5 percent in 2013 but tallied a mere 24.1 percent this time around. The SPD saw its worst post-World War II election result of 20.5 percent in 2017. The last time it scored over 40 percent at a federal level dates back to 1998.

There has been so much rapprochement between the two parties that gaps had opened up over the years both to the left and right of the coalition. People who did not feel represented properly started looking elsewhere for alternative solutions.

Voter turnout indicates that the dissatisfaction didn’t lead to cynicism or political fatigue. Over 76 percent of Germans voted in the general election. The votes simply didn’t go to Die Linke to the degree that socialists would have hoped.

So, what happened?

The bourgeois media were quick to point out two things. First, that Die Linke is plagued by continued infighting which damages its image for voters and, second, that Die Linke lacked a real “Regierungswille” or will to govern (in a coalition) at the federal level. There is certainly a lot of truth to the first observation. The second is more interpretative and really depends on where one stands politically.

Die Linke is a multi-tendency organization, not unlike DSA. Its caucuses range from the social-democratic and strictly reform-oriented Netzwerk Reformlinke (Network Reform Left) to libertarian socialist gathered in the Emanzipatorische Linke (Emancipatory Left), with pretty much every left flavor imaginable in between. It is therefore normal that there are political differences in internal discourse.

What was certainly not helpful in this context was Die Linke Bundestag representative Sahra Wagenknecht’s public appearances and the launching of her book The Self-Righteous: My Counter-Scheme — For Public Spirit and Social Cohesion. By “the self-righteous” she was referring to Die Linke, i.e., her own comrades. The bourgeois media had a field day with this, of course, and helped to widely disseminate her theses, which undoubtedly hurt Die Linke.

Not only is it obviously detrimental to air dirty laundry publicly when in the middle of a campaign, Wagenknecht is also plain wrong in some of her accusations. Her theory is that Die Linke has alienated itself from the “traditional” working class by focusing too much on other issues, such as climate change, antiracism, and feminism.

First, social issues remain front and center for Die Linke, including for this campaign. A brief look at the campaign platform confirms this. Pensions, wages, rents and Hartz IV (unemployment/welfare benefits) were again core issues of the campaign.

Second, the struggles for women’s rights, the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities, and the environment are an integral part of the class struggle.

Will there be workers who may vote for the CDU or even the AfD? Of course, there will be, but it is beyond twisted to pander to right-wing populist, anti-immigrant garbage to get these votes for a socialist party.

As for the second media argument mentioned above, Die Linke’s supposed lack of “maturity” and a will to govern, the opposite is truer. Marx 21, a revolutionary socialist current in Die Linke coming out of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) tradition, argues in its post-election analysis that it was precisely the hesitancy of Die Linke to call out the Social Democrats and Greens on their failed policies that contributed to the losses at the polls.

This reluctance to show a clearer profile was driven by the desire to enter a coalition with those two parties. While it is not necessarily wrong to enter a coalition in order to push through reforms, as long as there are principled boundaries, talk about entering a coalition should begin after the votes have been cast, not prior.

Die Linke failied to show a sharp profile over against the other two parties, even though both the SPD and the Greens started to pay lip service to some social issues again. This hurt Die Linke.

In order to get a seat at the table, some “reformers” within Die Linke, such as co-chair Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, even went so far as to publicly offer core positions up for renegotiation in order to ingratiate themselves with the Social Democrats and the Greens. One example was her verbal softening of Die Linke’s pacifist, anti-NATO stance to indicate a readiness for interventionist foreign policy adventures.

There was an additional element that caused some traditional Die Linke voters to turn to the SPD, which a U.S. audience should be rather familiar with — lesser-evilism. With the retirement of Merkel, and the resulting uncertainty, some voters deliberately wanted to strengthen the SPD for the inevitable coalition negotiations.

Furthermore, some may have cast an SPD vote as a bulwark against the still strong AfD, out of fear that the CDU may entertain entering a coalition with the far-right party, despite saying the opposite publicly (so far).

AfD is here to stay

Another very disturbing fact that doesn’t really get the media attention it should, is that the far-right AfD has established itself in parliament. It was the first far-right party in post-WWII Germany ever to get into federal parliament when it scored 12.6 percent in 2017. While it tallied two percentage points less this time around, it is still well over the 5 percent threshold, and with over 10 percent well represented. In a country from where the Holocaust originated this should be intolerable.

There is a roundabout connection here with regard to Die Linke’s failure as well. While there may not have been direct migration of voters on a big scale from Die Linke to AfD this time around, the AfD is increasingly perceived by voters in the former GDR territory as more of an “opposition” party than Die Linke. This is particularly troublesome since historically Die Linke has been the advocate for the perennially marginalized and disenfranchised of Eastern Germany.

Part of the blame lies in Die Linke’s performance in coalition governments at the local level. As Marx 21 has correctly pointed out, wherever the party participates in governments, it repeatedly comes into fundamental contradiction to its own program and the political positions for which it was elected.

In the Bundestag Die Linke shows a clear edge against privatization and the tightening of the right to asylum. At the same time, it participates in state governments with policies of deportation and privatization. A case in point would be the privatization of 70,000 apartments in Berlin under a red-red coalition (with the SPD).

What to do

It seems like Die Linke is beset by similar issues as other European broad left organizations which have engaged in parliamentary politics, whether it is the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) of Italy, Podemos of Spain, or Syriza of Greece. There is no blueprint on how to play the electoral game and yet stay true to one’s colors once elected or forced to enter a coalition. Some critical points can be identified, however:

Hard boundaries around core issues. Elected socialists should not get lured into accepting, supporting, or carrying out cuts in social spending because the budget is not there. That equals socialists buying into a neoliberal narrative, which is unacceptable and can wipe out years of hard movement work on the ground.

Elected officials need to be recallable and held responsible. When party members hold office or participates in a government at whatever level, they do not only represent the electorate but also the party. If violations against party principles and core issues occur, there must be consequences.

Movement work should never be sacrificed for parliamentarism. At no point should electoral work be prioritized over movement work, and elected officials should not lose touch with movements, but rather be accountable to them.

I want Die Linke to prosper. I think there is much that is salvageable, and the party will continue to be needed as a pole of opposition and resistance to the status quo. It also has deep roots into a variety of movements and has either participated in or mobilized for some of the biggest protests in Germany in recent years. This, rather than parliamentarism, should be the base for the party to build upon.

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