Lurch to the Left or a Spot of Shadow Boxing? The Left Party’s New Programme and its Implications for Governing Germany

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

Dr. Dan Hough is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.

When, on 27th September 2009, Die Linke (the Left Party) polled just under 12 per cent of the vote in Germany’s federal election, it looked as if a new era in federal party politics was beginning. Indeed, Germany appeared to be following the path previously trodden by many other European states; a party to the left of mainstream social democracy was stabilising itself as a ‘normal’ actor in everyday party politics. However, the time since that historic election victory has been anything other than plain sailing for Germany’s most prominent anti-capitalist party; the LP has seen a gaffe-prone leadership lurch from one quarrel to the next, its opinion poll ratings have slipped and rather than make political capital out of what, to many at least, looks like a crisis of modern capitalism (i.e. the fallout from the Global Credit Crunch and the ensuing – and ongoing – crisis of the Euro) the party has become less rather than more prominent in everyday political life. As 2011 wore on, the Linke no longer appeared the new and fresh (the Pirate Party, following extraordinary success in Berlin’s recent regional election, has taken on that particular mantle) force it once did; quite the contrary, the LP appeared rudderless, divided and without any real programmatic core.

This final accusation at least can now no longer be levelled at the party. On 23rd October, nearly four years into its existence, delegates at a party congress in the eastern city of Erfurt finally agreed on a party programme. With over 96 per cent of them supporting it, it would appear that the party has moved at least some way to uniting behind a set of core programmatic beliefs. Providing that the 70,000 strong membership of the party (who now get to vote on the document in an internal referendum) support what their delegates have agreed upon – and all the evidence indicates that they will – then by mid-December the LP’s four year long struggle to agree on what it stands for should be over. That is certainly the opinion of co-leader Klaus Ernst, who claimed the programme was a “milestone in the party’s history”, whilst Sahra Wagenknecht, the doyen of the far-left and long-time spokesperson of the influential ‘Communist Platform’, claimed to be “over the moon with the unity shown in support of this programme.”

The new programme certainly makes interesting reading. This is not the stuff of management speak (LP members don’t, as a rule, “push the envelope” or engage in “blue-sky thinking”) and there is no fence-sitting. Amongst other things, the LP claims to want to abolish NATO, nationalise Germany’s banks and prevent the Bundeswehr from being active – almost under any set of circumstances – outside of German territory. In a nod to a younger, libertarian strand within the party it also wants to decriminalise (all) drug usage. The programme is certainly, in theory at least, a radical attempt to overhaul capitalism and empower individuals (or, if you will, to let them make their own mistakes). If the Linke can sell these ideals and policy proposals to the German electorate, then things really will get very interesting.

Politicians in other parties in Germany are subsequently taking note, and they are right to do so; the Greens and the SPD may well have had a majority in recent opinion polls, but whether they will by the time of the next election in 2013 is a moot point. The Linke could clearly be a factor in the national coalition game, and although there is little prospect of a red-red-green coalition post-2013, the Linke’s programmatic positions, attitudes and tactical stances will undoubtedly influence the behaviour of others. In other words, the SPD (and, to a lesser extent, the Greens) will have a keen eye on some of the 1.1 million previously Social Democratic voters who moved to the LP in 2009 – will they like what they see in this new programme? Will they feel that they made their point (of protesting at the SPD’s apparent drift to the right under both Gerhard Schröder’s tenure as chancellor (1998-2005) and in the Grand Coalition (2005-09)) and return ‘home’ in 2013? This will depend both on what the LP and SPD offer in programmatic terms in 2013, but also on how leaders of the two parties choose to play – tactically and strategically – the cards that they have been dealt.

The Linke post-2011; when dreams and reality crash head on
Before policy-makers in and beyond Germany’s borders start fretting about the country possibly lurching to the left on account of all this, a word of caution. The reified air of party congresses is not the same as the real-world of policy-making and governance. The LP has long held some of the stances we saw signed off in Erfurt; abolishing NATO, for example, is a claim that the LP’s predecessor, the PDS, has made since 1990, whilst the aim of nationalising parts of the German economy also forms part of the left’s staple diet. The LP has governed largely unproblematically with the SPD in three eastern Länder (in the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern, 1998-2006; in Berlin, 2001-2011 and currently in Brandenburg), and the economic roof has not fallen in. Indeed, LP politicians such as Harald Wolf (long-time economics senator in Berlin) and Wolfgang Methling (environment minister in MVP) have enhanced the reputations of both themselves and their parties in government. These are politicians who have learnt to deal with the challenges and dilemmas of everyday politics, subsequently leaving the eye-catching, breast-beating radicalism to those who shout loudest at party congresses.

Governing relatively poor states in eastern Germany is, however, one thing. Taking control of the engine of the European economy is quite another. It is for that reason that the radical nature of the LP’s new programme does still need to be taken seriously. The ‘modern socialists’ such as Wolf, long-time leader of the parliamentary party Gregor Gysi, and prominent members of Land branches in a number of eastern states no longer hold sway in the upper echelons of the party. They used to be the backseat drivers, nudging and cajoling from over the shoulders of others. Intellectually sharp, clever and quick-witted though Gysi, for example, is, he cannot run the Linke on his own. Gesinne Lötzsch, current co-chair of the party, is effectively a local politician from Berlin-Lichtenberg, whilst her fellow co-chair, Klaus Ernst, is a classic champagne socialist from Bavaria. Neither have the gravitas or the astuteness to successfully lead a nationally significant political party. The rise of Sahra Wagenknecht, the ex-Stalinist from Jena who may conceivably be co-leader of the parliamentary caucus by the time you read this, from freak show on the far-left to the mainstream of the party, shows exactly what can happen when vacuums ensue.

Even then, this is not just a story about the failure of reformers within the LP to asset their authority. With a populist figure like Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD leader, chancellor-candidate (in 1990) and Federal Finance Minister (1998-99), in the background it was always going to be hard to assert a more constructive, practically viable programmatic agenda. Lafontaine is still, for many electors in the west, the reason they vote (d) for the LP. He is seen as epitomising what the party stands for. And this is plainly evident in opinion polls; without Lafontaine playing a prominent role, the LP bumps along at just above the all-important five per cent mark, with him they are nearer ten per cent. That became crystal clear when, post-2009, Lafontaine retreated to the Saarland to be parliamentary leader of the LP in the regional parliament there, leaving (apparently) the federal stage for others.

Lafontaine is, however, clearly on the mend in terms of his health (he recently suffered a cancer scare) and, if the Erfurt congress is anything to go by, he sees himself as having a role to play in federal politics. Lafontaine won’t say whether this means he will return to the Bundestag in 2013 (he is too politically savvy to reveal that this early on in the electoral cycle), but the pointers are clear; Lafontaine is back. And Lafontaine has powerful western German backers in the party who have long felt that the eastern branches have long held too much sway in internal party affairs.

Lafontaine, and those who flounced out of the SPD in disgust at the SPD/Green government’s Agenda 2010 reform programme, remains trenchant in their opposition to what they see as the Social Democrats’ abandonment of their roots. Indeed, at times it appears that they are more concerned with distancing themselves from the SPD than they are in genuinely fighting what one would have assumed were an even bigger enemy; the CDU/CSU. Lafontaine’s brand of oppositionalism subsequently involves opposition to red-red coalitions in the east, for example, as well as in clear attempts to ‘out-radicalise’ the SPD in its programmatic positions. Populist rhetoric is also not usually in short supply. Hence we see talk of introducing a 30 hour working week make an appearance in the party programme, just as we see other demands that clearly will be impossible to implement in practice.

That Lafontaine and Wagenknecht have become close allies subsequently looks strange at first glance – whilst he was federal finance minister, she was still defending parts of Stalin’s legacy – their rigorous opposition to what they see as a Social Democratic sell-out has led them to become allies. To be sure, Wagenknecht has moved on since the days when she defended the building of the Berlin Wall, but her fire-brand rhetoric plays well with the deeply held disdain for the SPD that many of Lafontaine’s supporters maintain. It is that sort of mixture that led to the programme that the LP passed on 22/23 October.

So, what does this internal posturing mean for party politics as a whole in Germany? On the one hand, the LP clearly is moving away from the reformers’ problem-solving positions that characterise LP behaviour in eastern Germany. The lack of an authoritative voice articulating the need to work, on occasion, with the SPD and not against it is clearly a problem. On the other hand, party programmes are frequently drafted for internal audiences. And much of what the LP says now has been on the party’s radar for quite some time. The party’s anti-capitalist positions cannot, for example, have surprised too many long-time LP-watchers that much.

The key issue is subsequently not what Lafontaine and Wagenknecht say in TV talkshows. We can be pretty sure that they will blame the ills of the world on capitalism in general, and the SPD in particular. It is how the SPD leadership reacts that will be important. If the SPD can create its own positive narrative on how it would lead a centre-left government into a more positive future, then it has a chance of winning back some of the support it lost in 2009. If the SPD, on the other hand, attempts to win a battle of populist rhetoric with Oskar Lafontaine, then it will not and the LP will benefit as a result. The challenge for the Social Democrats is subsequently to creatively explain where they want to take Germany, and how Germans will be better off as a result. It is a tough ask – but it is one that any party aspiring to lead a state like Germany has to at least attempt to rise to.

Dr. Dan Hough is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex and is a frequent contributor to AGI publications and events.

This essay appeared in the October 28, 2011 AGI Advisor.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.