Die Linke: Courtship with an eye on 2017
The latest developments in German politics should serve as a reality check for the ‘broad party’ advocates in this country, argues Ben Lewis
For all the talk of the recent German elections being the most boring in memory, having been met with huge levels of apathy and indifference on the part of the population, the results and the continuing fallout from September’s vote appear to be precipitating some rather significant changes within German politics. Some commentators are arguing that the federalist system – with its mixed proportional voting, 5% hurdles and a tendency to produce coalition governments – is potentially facing its biggest upheaval since the end of the long period of rule by the conservative Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the rise of the ‘red-green’ governments at the end of the 1990s.
They do so with good reason, for in spite of the British media in particular making much of chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘stunning victory’, the fact is that she actually lost the election overall and, especially in light of the electoral obliteration of her coalition partner, the German Free Democrats (FDP), the position of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is looking increasingly tenuous. This might have come as a surprise to many, not least those who have been somewhat spellbound by the rhetoric surrounding Merkel and her seemingly unstoppable electoral success. All of those column-inches devoted to her popularity are now starting to appear as if they were written years, not weeks, ago.
Lacking an overall majority, the CDU-CSU were initially forced into government negotiations with the social democrats (SPD).
In and of itself, this was not a reason for Merkel and her camp to panic. Coalition talks are par for the course, and the essentially Blairite SPD could, given the odd compromise and ministerial post here and there, easily be brought into line, as in the previous ‘grand coalition’ of 2005-09. Merkel’s forces would be dominant, and there was not much of real substance between the parties anyway – one of the more obvious factors behind the general ennui with the recent election campaign, of course. And if there is one person sufficiently battle-hardened to emerge from coalitionism fighting, then it is Angela Merkel, who has gradually earned the reputation of a politician whose success is almost predicated on ruining her coalition partners – first the SPD in 2009, whose ‘grand coalition’ outing came at the cost of its worst electoral result since World War II, and then the FDP in 2013, which acted as a kind of ‘human shield’ for the more unpopular aspects of its partner’s policies and as a result was duly obliterated in September, failing to achieve the 5% of the popular vote required for parliamentary representation.
What is more, until recently the coalition talks seemed to be very much ‘business as usual’, with the vast array of ‘working groups’ discussing anything but the things that divide two parties calmly taking the well-trodden steps towards a marriage of convenience. Yet then came the bombshell from the SPD’s conference in Leipzig last week, where, in a move that has been described as highly calculated and decidedly Merkelesque, the party threw a huge spanner into the works by voting to “no longer rule out in principle any coalition, except one with rightwing extremist parties”.
While this motion may appear pretty harmless, it effectively proclaims that the SPD is already beginning to draw up plans for a post-Merkel administration by opening itself up to the prospect of governing nationally alongside Germany’s Left Party, Die Linke, for the first time. As things currently stand, a three-way coalition of the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens would already amount to a very narrow governing majority. Yet for the SPD it is obviously too narrow a basis from which to launch a programme of government for a full four-year term. Yet in 2017? Or if some of the proposed grand coalition’s policies prove too unpopular and the SPD withdraws and triggers new elections? If pressure can be applied on the right wing of Die Linke to drop some of its ‘unrealistic’ policy pledges? There is no denying that the move is a particularly cunning one, at least from the rather constrained outlook of party-political calculation and manoeuvre.
Unsurprisingly, the forces of the CDU-CSU are outraged. There is talk of being “duped” by the SPD, with Merkel perhaps coming to realise that, when it comes to coalition government, living by the sword also means dying by it. One commentator in Der Spiegel describes the move as “the new partner already flirting with the next bride” during a newlywed couple’s first real tiff. Not only has the general atmosphere surrounding the coalition talks been somewhat poisoned, it has also had a direct impact on the content of the government negotiations themselves with the CDU-CSU looking to restrict the government programme, which Merkel wants to be signed and sealed by the end of the month, to a modest set of measures, all of which will be fully financed and accounted for. This, or so the story goes, is to thereby leave as little room as possible for the SPD to withdraw from the coalition on the pretext that the joint programme has been neglected or insufficiently carried out.
For the moment, the message from leading conservatives like Merkel and Horst Seehöfer is not to let things get out of hand: the talks are continuing and most expect some kind of deal to be struck before the end of the month, whereupon the SPD membership will have the final say in the form of a referendum. Yet the anger on the part of the CDU is already spilling over and is likely to strongly feature at the party’s congress this weekend. CDU general secretary Hermann Göhe even conjured up the spectre of fresh elections – an extraordinarily rare phenomenon in German politics. In a predictably cynical manner, he also attempted to exploit the real hostility towards the disaster of the German Democratic Republic’s ‘official communism’ by highlighting the supposed double-standards of the SPD in rejecting “rightwing extremism”, only to embrace what is supposedly its leftwing totalitarian twin, Die Linke. Yet behind the loathing and the neurosis lies genuine fear. In spite of their large vote in September, without the backing of the SPD the forces of the CDU and CSU are simply left in no man’s land. The Greens would be their only possible remaining coalition partner: a very sad state of affairs indeed, both from the point of view of the German right and from the point of view of the leftwing illusions some still have in the rudderless Greens.
The SPD’s audacity flows from the fact that it currently holds the lion’s share of seats to Merkel’s left. Viewed in this light, the decision in Leipzig is as much a warning shot directed at the CDU-CSU as it is an attempt to bring together a potential ‘red-red-green’ coalition in 2017. What is new here is obviously Die Linke, which, unlike the Greens, has been consistently rejected as a government partner at the national level.
Interestingly, even those on the SPD right have largely welcomed the overtures. Johannes Kahrs of the notorious Seeheim Circle, which self-describes as the “conservative” wing of the SPD, revealingly states: “We’re saying to Die Linke: become capable of forming a coalition, then you’re in the game”. There is no doubt as to what being “capable” means in the words of such a figure: make yourself a party that can be trusted to help run capitalism. Specifically, he mentioned Die Linke’s “unrealistic” stance on financial policy (aka cuts), foreign policy (the posting of troops abroad and Germany’s lucrative weapons exports) and Europe (troika-led austerity).
In many ways, the very fact that the SPD is starting to play footsie with Die Linke is reflective of the latter’s electoral success. Assuming that the coalition talks between CDU-CSU and the SPD are successful, then, as the third biggest party in parliament, Die Linke will be the main party of opposition. As such it will have an excellent opportunity to expose the priorities of the governing parties, not least their commitment to upholding the capitalist status quo that necessarily engenders, amongst other things, austerity, crisis and imperialist bloodshed.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that such a response is almost a world away from that currently put forward by the party. Take Sahra Wageknecht, for example, a popular figure whose fairly hard ‘official communist’ background has often been seen as providing a counterweight to the forces in the party most openly clamouring for government participation both at regional and national level. Her response to these most recent power games was to effectively argue that 2017 is too far away – the SPD should “immediately break off” official coalition talks with the CDU and open up a dialogue with the Greens and Die Linke instead. It is already widely reported that leading figures in Die Linke, such as Dietmar Bartsch, have been in dialogue with SPD leaders like Sigmar Gabriel to discuss future plans and “creative solutions”.
Quite apart from the fact that such crass coalitionism has absolutely nothing to do with the politics of ‘socialism’ or ‘anti-capitalism’ that are often ascribed to parties like Die Linke, it is absolutely obvious that assuming responsibility for administering the capitalist state will lead to a haemorrhaging of the party’s support base in the working class. We only need to look back six or seven years to recall the short-lived disaster of the local ‘red-red’ coalitions in the states of Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Die Linke was more than happy to preside over harsh social cuts alongside the SPD. In the subsequent state elections, Die Linke was hammered and booted out of office.
Yet this seems to have simply passed most comrades by, including some on the ‘left’ of the party. A rather ominous example of what could lie ahead both regionally and perhaps nationally in the next four years is provided by the experience of regional government negotiations in Hesse, where elections took place on the same day as the national poll. Here Janine Wissler, a supporter of the Marx 21 faction (and former member of the Socialist Workers Party’s fraternal grouping, Linksruck, before it dissolved itself into Marx 21) has played a particularly unprincipled role in regional government negotiations between the Greens, the SPD and Die Linke in her role as an MP in the Hesse parliament. Wissler told Der Spiegel1 that she proposed three alternative courses of action: to “tolerate” a red-green local government, which is to say using Die Linke’s votes to vote such a government into existence; to allow the CDU to form a government and then cause havoc along with the other parties (surely the best and most principled option); or to form a local red-red-green administration, which would be the first of its kind in German politics.
Representatives of the Greens and SPD appear to have been rather content with Wissler’s pliancy (or what the SPD might call being “capable for government”), especially when she expressed a willingness to compromise on the question of Hesse’s state debt: staff reductions might be a possible response to the problem, providing that they do not take place “on a large scale”, of course! To the disappointment of the Greens and the SPD, however, it soon transpired that Wissler had gone a little too far for the liking of others. The chair of Die Linke in Hesse, Ulrich Wilken, insisted that the party “will not take part in a government that aims to cut jobs”. A welcome intervention. But is it really to be taken that seriously in light of the number of jobs slashed by previous ‘red-red’ administrations?
And what of Wissler and others like her? The SPD’s overtures will doubtless attract careerists in Die Linke, especially in the absence of a strong and organised left wing with firm and principled arguments against capitalist government participation tout court.
None of this should come as a surprise to those of us who have followed Die Linke over the recent past. Born of a merger between a split in the middle ranks of the trade union bureaucracy/ social democracy in the west and the former ruling party of ‘official communist’ East Germany, it showed a strong desire to take over the reins of the capitalist state from the very outset.
As far back as 2006, when this writer was reporting from the congresses and conventions of Die Linke’s West German forerunner, Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit, I warned that “unless the currently isolated and disparate critical voices start to organise into an effective opposition within the party, the new, merged Linkspartei will simply become a second social democratic force fit to govern on behalf of capital”.2 Indeed, the whole ‘red-red’ local government fiasco merely embodied in practice what was already well established in the theory and outlook of the party.
Astonishingly, however, it seems to have become the duty of far too many on the left outside Germany to defend and apologise for the ‘model anti-capitalist party’ that Die Linke is supposed to be.3 So it is for many in and around Left Unity, who believe that ‘normal, everyday people’ will flock to our side in droves if only we ditch supposedly ‘alienating’ terminology, history and tradition and focus on ‘common sense’ politics instead. Such comrades also ignore the specific context in which Die Linke was able to gain support. The role of, firstly, Germany’s proportional electoral system and, secondly, the moves towards a new party by significant forces within both left social democracy and ‘official communism’ – two obvious factors lacking on these shores – are either overlooked or downplayed. Ditto the continued existence of the Labour Party in Britain and its role.
Four years is a long time in politics and a lot can change. Yet any honest and critical assessment of the situation must surely acknowledge that Die Linke is heading towards the disaster of fully embracing a warmed-over social democracy. The main players appear all too willing to be swallowed up by the “game” of coalition poker for the capitalist state, to which any workers’ party worth its salt should be implacably opposed. The left of the party is either lured by the prospects of a red-red coalition or simply avoids confronting the question.
1. Der Spiegel November 18 2013.
2. B Lewis, ‘On the road to social democracy’ Weekly WorkerOctober 6 2006.
3. Having also been published on the Left Unity website, my recentWeekly Worker articles discussing the German elections provoked a lot of comments, some of which were quite hostile. It may have also been a factor behind the editors of the website deciding to run several pieces either whitewashing Die Linke’s record or at least avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’ of government participation. For one such example, see T Kachel, ‘Die Linke after the parliamentary election’: http://leftunity.org/die-linke-after-the-german-general-election.