Consensus and Contentment in Germany’s Left Party. For Now

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

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

A strange outbreak of consensus seems to have engulfed Germany’s Left Party (Linke/LP). The recent party convention, held from May 9-11, illustrated that the days of internal bickering seem to have passed. Indeed, crises like those in Ukraine appear to have brought the differing factions in the party together. For now at least.

The situation of the Linke, as conference delegates arrived in Berlin over the second weekend in May, could not have been more different from that which the party faced just two years previously. The Göttingen conference in the spring of 2012 saw delegates arguing among themselves as the remnants of the party’s predecessors, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative and Social Justice (WASG), tried to stamp their authority on the party’s profile. Germany’s most ideological of parties appeared to want to remain true to a variety of programmatic visions, and questions were being asked in some quarters as to whether the LP had a genuine future as one unitary actor. Indeed, if it carried on being obsessed with itself, it faced electoral defeat in September 2013 and with that a slide into meaninglessness.

Come May 2014, things have changed. The party looks much more united and its programmatic positioning much more coherent. It’s the largest opposition party in parliament, and its co-leaders, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, as well as the election campaign manager, Matthias Höhn, are all, in their own ways, popular with the grassroots. The party can reflect on a successful federal election of September 2013 with quite some relish and it can even look forward to a regional election—in Thuringia—where it has a realistic chance of posting its first ever regional Minister-President.

However, the trouble with all of this new found stability is that it cannot last for long. It certainly makes internal party life easier to manage and it also helps the Linke look like a tougher, more resilient force. Yet, for the party to maintain its position in the German party system it may well have to risk changing, and with change always comes the chance of more discord. That is nowhere more evident than in the field of foreign policy, as there the Left Party still seems happier talking in twentieth century language about twenty-first century problems. Embracing the foreign policy challenges of the here and now will ultimately be difficult, and as and when the LP tries to do this, expect the tranquility to dissipate pretty quickly.

Oskar Lafontaine: An Uncharacteristically Quiet Farewell

The background to these developments is both interesting and revealing. One of the reasons for the LP’s sanguine progress through 2013 and 2014 has been the unexpectedly quiet departure of the party’s long-time firebrand, Oskar Lafontaine. Indeed, Lafontaine’s confrontation with fellow Linke heavyweight, Gregor Gysi, at the Göttingen conference epitomized much of the internal strife that the party was being engulfed by; do we govern alongside the SPD—and possibly the Greens—in the Länder or do we not? Should our policy profile remain radically anti-capitalist, or should we look to move forward in small steps alongside other left-of-center actors? In short, the LP was obsessed with itself and, as all analysts of party politics will tell you, that is not a good recipe for electoral success.

Yet, no sooner than had the party adopted its program for the 2013 federal election—tacitly supporting much of the rhetoric that Lafontaine, an oppositionalist at heart, had been espousing—Lafontaine began to lose influence. Indeed, in the run-up to the Dresden conference in the summer of 2013, and in response to the media and opinion poll hype around the Euro-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), Lafontaine began to sideline himself. His public musings about Germany looking to leave the euro and how the AfD might be tapping into concerns about immigrants taking Germans’ jobs misjudged the tone inside the LP, illustrating that Lafontaine was fast becoming yesterday’s man rather than the face of the future. The fact that this all happened without much of a public ado was even more surprising.

The Linke’s drift in to a perfectly respectable election result in September 2013—8.6 percent of the vote and 64 seats—went largely unnoticed. No one expected the party to form a coalition with the other parties of the center-left, although it was mathematically possible and much of their policy programs were broadly complimentary. Indeed, one of the Linke’s current problems is that a significant number of its most well-known policies have lost their cutting edge; first among these is the national minimum wage, something that the Grand Coalition has promised to bring in. The only real area where the Linke does have a clearly identifiable brand remains in terms of attitudes to German missions abroad and to foreign policy more generally—and it’s precisely that oppositionalist brand that makes a coalition with the SPD and Greens unimaginable. During his speech at the Berlin conference, Bernd Riexinger could not have been clearer about where the Linke stood; under the LP’s watch no German troops were ever going to set foot outside Germany’s borders. No ifs, no buts, no compromises. That went down marvelously with the rank and file; it goes down like a lead balloon in the central offices of the SPD and Greens.

The Challenge of the Ukraine Crisis

Foreign policy recalcitrance does not stop there. In terms of Ukraine, the LP was not slow to claim that the German government needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the crisis. At the Berlin conference, a resolution was passed observing that Russia was not even “primarily responsible” for the crisis escalating and that the EU should not have been so brazen in cozying up to states that are in Russia’s self-proclaimed sphere of influence. That citizens across central and eastern Europe should be able to choose governments that sign up to the alliance that they want seems to have been lost in transit. The Linke, in other words, seems to forget that although the EU—and with that Germany—may well have got things wrong, even Walter Payton ran the odd wrong play. It did not, however, suddenly make the Bears’ finest a bad running back.

The Linke’s instinctive willingness to see the Russian side of things is not exclusive. Other German parties also have their Russophile tendencies. But, the Berliner Parteitag illustrated very clearly that when there is any doubt to be given, it tends not to be given either to the German government or to other western institutions, but rather to the actions of those to the east of Donetsk and Kharkiv. The Linke’s willingness to reject much of the rhetoric and substance of not just Germany’s, but also the wider western world’s foreign policy helps bring the party together. But it also helps keep it a considerable distance from the corridors of power in Berlin.

Since the autumn of 2013, leading Social Democrats have made a play of talking about possibly working with the LP in the future. When the records of SPD-LP administrations in the eastern states are analyzed, you can see why. These coalitions have been policy-orientated; they have been decidedly unspectacular. In the Länder these relationships can be constructive and focused. And they work.

The Berlin conference of May 2014, meanwhile, illustrated that while the socio-economic divide between the two parties is not great at the national level either, attitudes toward foreign policy challenges differ considerably. Indeed, the larger part of any future left-wing alliance is trying, even if in a way that is not always easy, to come to terms with what the twenty-first century demands of them. The Left Party, meanwhile, appears stuck in the rhetorical hinterlands of the century that came before. That works now, but as and when LP members remember that they entered politics to try and change things it will become a problem. The LP will have to work out how it wants to engage and change things. And when it realizes that these changes are a must if it wants to actually get anything done, expect internal tensions to rise once again.

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