The Left Party (Die Linke) is the story of the last twenty-seven years since German unification. It has been the largest of the three smaller parties in the Bundestag during the past four years—bigger than the Greens and the Christian Social Union. Its base is largely in the eastern German states; the party heads the government in Thuringia. The Left is also engaged in the state governments of Brandenburg and Berlin. Yet the party has also gained some traction in the western states, entering the state parliaments in Lower Saxony, Hesse, Hamburg, and recently in North Rhine-Westphalia.
But what the Left represents has been part of the phases of a unified Germany because it is part of the debate about the parameters of German society, about the equation of the social market economy, about Germany’s role and responsibility on the world stage. While that debate was present before unification in the Federal Republic, it was outlawed in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) by the dictatorship that controlled it. Today, the Left Party gives voice to east Germans in the main but also to some west Germans who feel the need for an alternative political voice
The Left is a part of the evolution of those political forces that reinvented themselves in the ashes of the German Democratic Republic. As such, it has forged its brand around an anti-capitalist and anti-militarist platform. Its heritage after 1990 was in the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which managed to sustain its presence in the Bundestag and in state governments in the east through the 1990s, and whose spokesman, Gregor Gysi, was a popular figure in the east.
While many of the Left’s members were once part of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), like Gysi, it has drawn much of its support from those in eastern Germany who feel alienated from economic changes that have occurred since unification. But support and membership also emerged among disgruntled Social Democrats and trade unionists, who felt betrayed by steps taken by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to reform Germany’s social policies during his tenure.
While the PDS managed to be represented in the Bundestag in the 1990s, it formed an electoral alliance with a west German group and eventually gained traction in the 2005 general election, winning 8.7 percent of the vote.
The Left then emerged as the national brand of the party in 2007.
The Left Party proposes the need to contain what they see as capitalism’s excesses through tough regulation and a reformed social welfare system. The figures most widely known are frontrunners Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch, Minister-President in Thuringia.
The primary focus of the Left platform is on social justice issues including the minimum wage, increased state pensions, increased taxes on the rich, and expanded health care.
It also includes a fundamental shift in Germany’s engagement away from military alliances such as NATO. In fact, it calls for the dissolution of NATO. It opposes all Bundeswehr missions abroad and identifies the U.S. as a global security risk. It proposes closer relations with Russia.
The Left is going to return to the Bundestag after the election whether it is the largest of the smaller parties or not. However, there’s no way that the Left Party will be asked to become part of the national government—certainly not by Angela Merkel should she win reelection. Nor would the SPD leadership venture down that road given the Left’s policy positions.
The fact is that the Left has essentially locked itself into being a permanent opposition party at the national level even while it seeks governing opportunities at the state and local levels. It is going to be able to sustain itself within the niche that it has defined for some time to come. That does not prevent the party from being continually marked by contradictory forces competing for its ownership. It will seek to shape national narratives while being unable to expand its base significantly much beyond where it is today.
Assuming that the forecasts are correct, it will be quite a spectacle in the Bundestag to see on one side of the floor the cluster of Alternative for Germany (AfD) representatives separated by all the other parties from the Left Party on the other side.
Both of these parties are now part of the political environment in which Germany must seek to forge its policies whoever is at the helm of government. The Left Party will continue to struggle over this role as an opposition party versus a governing party candidate. But that struggle will not prevent it from continuing to be an actor on the political stage seeking to encourage Germany to make a Left turn. It’s an old story with a new chapter.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.