The Left Party in Superwahljahr 2021
Texas Woman's University
Jonathan Olsen is Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Texas Woman's University. He is the author of four books and has written widely on a variety of political parties in Germany, including the Linke, in such journals as German Politics and Society and German Politics.
If recent history is any guide, the 2021 German federal election will once again raise the question of whether the Left Party’s (Die Linke) cup is half-empty or half-full. As is well known, the party (at that time the Party of Democratic Socialism, the predecessor of today’s Linke) achieved its electoral breakthrough over two decades ago. Although it had already been represented in the Bundestag (and many eastern state parliaments) thanks to some quirky rules in German electoral law, the 1998 national election was the first time the party gained entrance into the federal parliament by surpassing the 5 percent minimum of the national vote. Quickly humbled in the next election in 2002, the party rebounded in 2005 as it began the merger process with the western German “Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice” (WASG) to form the new Left Party. The 2005 election heralded a sustained period of electoral stabilization for the Linke over the next decade.
So much for the good news. The Left Party’s best election result was twelve years ago. Since that time, the Linke has had solid, if unspectacular elections: in the last four Bundestag elections, the party has comfortably surpassed the 5 percent barrier, receiving at least 8 percent of the vote. Yet the election of 2017 cast some troubling shadows. To be sure, the Left Party increased its percentage in 2017 by 0.6 percent over 2013 and even won some 500,000 more votes than in 2013. It saw its vote share rise in the old, western states by almost 2.5 percent (winning more votes in every western constituency), gained an additional five MdBs, and won five direct mandates (four in Berlin, one in Leipzig). Yet in the battle of the small parties, the Left Party finished behind the Free Democrats (FDP) and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). Moreover, the Linke suffered grievously in its home base in eastern Germany. In the five new states, the Left Party lost an average of 5.1 percent compared to 2013. For a party used to election totals of 25 or even 30 percent in the eastern states, this was a bitter pill.
The chief architect of the Left Party’s disastrous election in the east was the AfD. The AfD campaigned there as a populist, anti-establishment party of eastern interests (a position formerly held by the Linke), subsequently taking away almost 11 percent of Left Party votes from 2013 –some 400,000 voters, the largest proportional losses of any party. Several disastrous state elections in eastern Germany from 2016-2018 – as well as the Left Party’s terrible performance (5.5 percent) in European Parliamentary elections in 2019 – solidified a picture of a party which, although clearly still a powerful player in Germany’s party system was losing important ground to its political competitors. Even its improving inroads into western Germany cannot conceal fundamental weaknesses. True, the Left Party is represented in every state parliament in the new states of eastern Germany, has gained entrance to many state parliaments in the west, and sits in several state coalition governments (even sitting in a coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens in Bremen and heading the government in Thuringia). Yet it is absent from large swaths of the west and is increasingly challenged by the AfD in eastern Germany (now the biggest or second biggest party in the east) and by the Greens everywhere.
Beyond the pure mathematics, a chief obstacle to any potential red-red-green coalition government remains the Left Party’s continued insistence on dissolving NATO and its friendly attitude towards Putin’s Russia.
Current opinion polls for the 2021 election put the Linke at anywhere between 7 to 8 percent of the vote. If that number holds up, it would make the Left Party the smallest party in the new Bundestag. That in itself might not be worrisome if the Left Party is part of a new red-red-green coalition government with the SPD and Greens. For the first time in its history, the Social Democrats have expressed their openness – indeed, their enthusiasm – for a coalition that would include the Linke. But a red-red-green coalition is far from certain. In fact, it is quite doubtful based on current polling, where this coalition would come up far short of the necessary parliamentary majority.
Adding to the Left Party’s challenges is the new untested leadership. At its spring 2021 party conference, the task of leading the Linke into a new era fell on two younger women, Janine Wissler (39), the parliamentary leader in Hesse who is popular with the farther left-wing of the party, and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (42), the parliamentary leader in Thuringia and a noted pragmatist (reflecting the more pragmatic eastern membership of the Left Party). How these two younger women work with each other – and how they manage the constant challenge of a “big tent” radical left party notorious for its sectarian infighting – is an open question. Moreover, whether these two new faces can provide charismatic but steady leadership (something mostly lacking in the Left Party since the departure of Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi) is equally unknown.
A truer test for the party and its new leadership as it battles its left-of-center rivals as well as its populist challenger the AfD will come in 2025, not in 2021.
The Linke’s draft campaign platform offers no new change in direction, so it is difficult to see how it might generate a groundswell of support as the campaign unfolds. Its signature issue – “social justice” – is reflected in calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and deficit government spending to raise the minimum wage, an increase in pensions and a lowering of the eligibility age, and more investment in the eastern half of the country. Beyond the pure mathematics, a chief obstacle to any potential red-red-green coalition government remains the Left Party’s continued insistence on dissolving NATO (a position the Greens once held but have now abandoned) and its friendly attitude towards Putin’s Russia (a position it shares with the AfD, perhaps reflecting lingering cultural legacies of the old GDR).
To sum up, the Left Party is likely to merit only passing references in the media as the results of the 2021 national election are known and coalition possibilities become apparent. It will be neither a disaster nor a triumph for the party. As such, it is unlikely to generate bitter inner-party conflicts – but equally unlikely to provoke much soul-searching either. Perhaps a truer test for the party and its new leadership as it battles its left-of-center rivals as well as its populist challenger the AfD will come in 2025, not in 2021.