Die Linke – a party that makes life difficult for itself

Germany’s Left Party (Die Linke) won 9.2% nationally in the 2017 election. It has 69 seats in the Bundestag and it is also in coalition governments in Thuringia, Berlin and Bremen. But despite its electoral weight, the party is regarded with suspicion by other parties, particularly Angela Merkel’s CDU.

The Left Party was formed in 2007 out of a merger of the successor of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) – which ruled the East German Democratic Republic – and a group of trade unionists and former SPD members. Like the far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Left Party is much stronger in the old east German states than in the west of the country. In 2017 it came in third place in the east (winning 17.8% and coming above the social democratic SPD, but below the AfD), and it currently has seats in every state parliament in the east.

In the west of Germany, the party is still seeking widespread acceptance. The party won only 7.4% in western Germany in 2017 and often fails to make it into state parliaments due to the 5% hurdle, which states that a party must get 5% of the vote in order to win seats. In the west it only has seats in state Hamburg, Bremen, Hesse and Saarland (as well as in Berlin), although it made history in 2019 by entering a governing coalition for the first time in the west (the party is in coalition with the SPD and Greens in Bremen).

It must be all the more painful for the Left Party to see the rapid growth of the AfD across Germany, particularly in the the east. Even more bitter – the AfD’s success is in part due to the migration of left-wing votes to the AfD; in 2017, it won 400,000 voters from the Left Party.

The party has certainly gained approval for its pragmatic policies in the states in which it has a share in governmental responsibility. This can be seen in Thuringia, where the Left Party leader Bodo Ramelow won 31% in the autumn state election, but also in Berlin, where the party pursues a consistent policy to contain the capital’s exploding rents (the rent brake).

Left Party leaders Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger
Photo: Ferran Cornellà CC-BY-SA-4.0

Nevertheless, the ruling conservative CDU/CSU Union insists on a non-cooperation policy with not only the AfD, but also the Left Party. This policy meant that the Thuringian CDU was unable to cooperate with the Left Party to form a government after last autumn’s election, and kicked off a political crisis which lasted a month and had national repercussions.

In keeping with finest hard left tradition, the party is divided and factional. Alongside a social democratic tendency which advocates ‘managing capitalism’, a range of far left views, including a communist faction, are to be found in the party. There is a permanent dispute in the party over the questions of direction and participation in government. Should the party get involved in managing capitalism or not? Isn’t it better to remain in systematic opposition so as not to be associated with the atrocities of the system? This last question is often connected to questions about the SPD: can the SPD be used to implement a social reform policy for the benefit of the population, or is it still the party of the controversial Agenda 2010 social welfare reforms under Gerhard Schröder? It was discontent with Schröder’s reforms which in 2004 led to a breakaway group from the SPD, which went on to be part of the group which formed the Left Party in 2007.

Following the nomination of Olaf Scholz as the SPD’s Chancellor candidate for the 2021 election, leading party figures indicated that they may be willing to enter an SPD-led coalition government, depending on the direction Scholz takes. Scholz, for his part, said, “There are still many questions about the Left Party’s ability to govern, there will certainly be a lot to discuss.”

The Left Party is led by a leadership duo, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, both of whom are part of the realistic reform camp. In August, both Kipping and Riexinger announced that they would not be seeking re-selection as leaders at the October party conference; since they had been in power for 8 years, and the party constitution states that no party office should be held by the same member for more than eight years, this was not unexpected. Currently it is unclear who may succeed the leaders, reported the Frankfurter Allgemeine, although the parliamentary group leader from Hesse, Janine Wissler, and the Thuringian parliamentary group leader, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, are being discussed as possible candidates for the party chairmanship.

The parliamentary group is led by Dietmar Bartsch, (a close confidante of former communist SED politician Gregor Gysi) and Amira Mohamed Ali, who is the successor of Sarah Wagenknecht.

Wagenknecht was leader of the parliamentary group until March 2019, and one of the party’s more radically left leaders. While still leader of the parliamentary group, she set up a new movement called Aufstehen (Stand Up), which aimed to unite left-leaning voters and recapture working-class votes lost to the far-right. In contravention of party policy, she argued against open borders and that the immigration of economic migrants should be controlled. Her initiative was opposed by the party and Wagenknecht resigned in March 2019, citing stress.

The presence of the communists regularly leads to outrage among the centre parties and is used as evidence that the Left Party has not yet arrived in the democratic world. This communist section, however, has no political influence on the decision-making structures of the party.

The party’s 2017 manifesto included relatively mild policies such as raising the minimum wage, state pensions and benefits, and making health insurance contributions more fair. A few of the election pledges – for example, no quotas for immigration, banning all weapons exports and withdrawing German soldiers from all mission abroad – were controversial. The open borders policy was hugely controversial within the party itself, as well as amongst voters.

Nevertheless, the hard left continues to make it difficult for the party to win acceptance. Disputes in the party are widely reported. For example, at a strategy conference at the end of February, the positive publicity that the party had gained in Thuringia during the political crisis was thoroughly destroyed. One conference participant stated that even after the revolution, even after the top one percent had been shot, a climate-crisis policy was still needed. This was not received as witty joke, as the participant may have fondly imagined, but used as evidence of the immaturity of the party. Party leader Riexinger’s response wasn’t well received either; he said, “We don’t shoot them, we use them for helpful work.”

The Left Party knows how to make life difficult for itself.

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