German elections: Winners, losers, soul-searching for the left

October 5, 2021
The preliminary election results, showing swings. Olaf Scholz, SPD (left), Annalena Bearbock, Greens (middle), Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke (right)

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — in power for the past 16 years — was the big loser of the September 26 federal elections, shedding 8.8% of the vote (according to preliminary figures) compared to the 2017 elections.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) gained 5.2% of the vote to become the largest party in the parliament with 25.7% of the vote, 1.6% ahead of the CDU.

But the biggest winners were the Greens. With an increase of 6.4% of the vote, the party achieved its highest vote ever federally — 14.8%. That the Greens may have hoped for even better results doesn’t change the fact that it will be part of the new coalition government and negotiations are underway with the SPD.

While the CDU was the biggest loser, socialist party Die Linke (The Left) lost 4.3% of the vote and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lost 2.3%.

Personality and politics

Personalities as well as politics influenced voters’ decisions and the results.

Some argue (maybe correctly) that had Merkel continued to be the CDU’s chancellor candidate, the party would have won the highest vote again. However, ever since she announced in late 2018 that she was not going to re-stand, the CDU experienced a difficult and public contest of ambitious politicians who were eyeing the role.

In the end, the candidate to front the CDU’s election campaign was Armin Laschet, an experienced politician and state premier. In July, during one of the most severe flooding events in Germany, Laschet was photographed laughing during a visit to the disaster area. The photo went viral on social media, doing him much damage.

Annalena Bearbock led the Greens campaign, which was polling 26% in May. This crashed, however, following several negative media reports in June. They included claims that Baerbock had exaggerated her involvement in organisations, such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and accusations of plagiarism in her recent publications.

Taken together, these personality issues impacted people's voting behaviour.

The political considerations underlying the personality factors were manifold.

Germany has been governed by consecutive coalitions of the CDU/SPD since 2013. (The CDU operates in union with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the latter only standing candidates in the state of Bavaria.)

Decisions made over the last seven years under the CDU’s leadership were carried by SPD votes. During this period, the gap between rich and poor has widened.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income earners, the widening wealth gap comes from the deregulation of working conditions, attacks on the welfare system and increasing the pension age to 67 — introduced by the SPD/Greens coalition between 1998 and 2005. The SPD won 40.9% of the vote in 1998.

Apart from these neoliberal attacks, the past 20 years of tax policies have exacerbated the income disparity. High-income earners have benefited from tax reductions and the reform of inheritance tax. At the same time, higher indirect taxes have further worsened the situation for poorer households.

SDP gains, left losses

This election, the SPD used two key political messages to present itself as the alternative to the CDU: raising the minimum wage from €9.50 (A$15.17) an hour to €12 (A$19.16) and for a single-tier health insurance scheme. They clearly resonated with voters, as 1.4 of the 2.4 million votes gained by the SPD came from previous CDU voters.

The SPD’s call for single-tier health insurance is a move away from the existing two-tier model of compulsory health insurance for low and medium earners and private health insurance for higher earners; health provisions for privately-insured residents has been on the back of the public system.

The SPD, led by Olaf Sholz, also won the support of about 600,000 previously Die Linke voters. Following this disastrous outcome for the socialist left, there has been a fair bit of soul-searching about what led to this situation.

Die Linke was established in 2007. It was an amalgamation of the socialist party formed after reunification in East Germany (Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS) and an electoral alliance (Labour and Social Justice — The Electoral Alternative, WASG) representing a split from the SPD in western states of Germany.

In 2013, Die Linke was the largest opposition party and the third largest party in Germany. This year, it almost didn’t reach the 5% threshold to make it into parliament. The fact that it will be represented is down to an electoral rule that permits representation if three candidates from a party are elected with the highest number of votes in their electoral district. Die Linke had three such candidates elected.

Die Linke has never been a socialist party with a homogenous ideological position. Historically, the reformist camp with politics most closely aligned to social-democratic strategies has made up a majority.

While this has not watered down the party’s program or policies, it has meant that it has often carried out and defended austerity policies in state governments — mainly but not exclusively in the eastern parts of German. These include the privatisation of social housing, cuts to hospital staff and/or supporting unsustainable industries such as coal. Die Linke’s election losses reflect a political loss of confidence by voters, particularly in the eastern states.

Die Linke’s main strategy in the lead up to this election was to become part of a red-green-red (SPD-Greens-Die Linke) coalition government. Because of this, Die Linke abstained from critically scrutinising the SPD’s and Green’s policies, or highlighting the SPD’s consistent neoliberal performance.

Despite 40% of voters stating the key issues were social security, climate/environment and economy/work, Die Linke did not highlight its stronger positions on these vis-à-vis the SPD/Greens, thus weakening its own position.

In the end, this approach played into the hands of SPD and Greens. Die Linke had nothing to offer voters who wanted the CDU gone. It was more logical to vote for the SPD or the Greens in the absence of a clear left demarcation.

An additional factor was Die Linke’s public profile as a divided party whose members of parliament do not follow the party's program or policies.

Sarah Wagenknecht, the high-profile leader of Die Linke’s parliamentary faction is a key figure who has increasingly stirred public debate on party policy. For some time she has tended towards populist positions, most recently pitching workers' issues against the so-called “middle-class diversity issues” of racism, oppression and climate change.

Rather than promoting struggles against all forms of injustice and oppression, this debate meant that Die Linke appeared divided on key issues.

Once the election results were published, Wagenknecht used the opportunity to reiterate her position, noting that the party had been veering away from its base of ordinary workers and pensioners over a few years. Ironically, in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, where Wagenknecht had first position on the ballot, the party received a worse election result than it did federally.

Open letter

Neues Deutschland (nd), a newspaper closely aligned to Die Linke, published an open letter written by Die Linke members from immigrant backgrounds on October 1 that called on members to fight for their party in the face of the electoral disaster. They blamed Wagenknecht for the party’s internal conflict, its loss of members and failure to attract younger activists.

The authors cited the example of Die Linke’s vote in Berlin to support their argument. In Berlin, the party’s absolute vote remained stable, as compared with its losses in most other states. In electoral districts where Die Linke highlighted social questions, such as poverty and housing insecurity and combined them with issues of oppression, particularly anti-racism, votes were gained.

The authors pointed to the need for year-round grassroots campaign efforts, rather than just before the elections. This position is supported by looking at the party’s membership numbers. Membership has grown in states where members are actively involved in campaigns including for real action on the climate, anti-racist/anti-fascist work, housing justice campaigns and industrial actions. By contrast there has been a constant drop in membership in the eastern states where Die Linke is participating in state governments.

The letter calls for an end to division and for clear pro-people positions on climate change, migration, racism and gender.

Far right

The loss of confidence in Die Linke in the eastern states is leaving space for the anti-capitalist and anti-establishment rhetoric of the far right. In two states, Thuringia and Saxony, AfD is now the largest party. This is despite it losing votes overall: losses were experienced in 13 out of 16 states.

Over the past six years, AfD has grown strongly in the eastern states, profiting from a growing divide between rich and poor and successfully exploiting people's genuine fears while promoting racist and nationalist solutions. This has happened on the back of an influx of refugees escaping wars in Syria and Afghanistan in 2015–16 and extended to rising electoral success in state governments.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Germany early last year, the AfD was initially disoriented, with little media presence and little to say — as its usual scapegoating of Muslims and refugees did not work in this new context.

However, as the so-called Querdenker (lateral thinkers or mavericks) movement took off — a hotchpotch of hippie-style anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and people concerned about restrictions of constitutional liberties — neo-Nazi-type groups saw an opportunity to go fishing for people to join the struggle to delegitimise the German Constitution and state.

It took the AfD a while to jump on the bandwagon and, while it was happy to be in the company of hardcore fascists, it couldn’t quite manage to control the movement. Once many of the harsh pandemic restrictions were lifted, the Querdenken protests withered and did not have much of an influence on the elections.

The AfD also has an image problem. Since 2019, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has been gathering intelligence on the AfD and its organisations as part of an investigation into far-right extremism. After it declared the AfD’s youth organisation and der Flügel (The Wing) faction to be suspected of right-wing extremism (on the grounds of promoting anti-democratic beliefs or actions not supportive of human rights), the faction was dissolved in April 2019.

Despite this, the party has been in an ongoing internal struggle between supporters of right-wing extremist positions and those with more moderate views. The latter would prefer to get the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution off their back and fear that extreme positions may alienate some voters. Media attention around the investigation and the internal struggle contributed to the AfD’s electoral losses.

Nonetheless, the AfD’s strength in the east and in some regions in the west has given weight to the extremists in the party. The upcoming party congress in December will show which approach is supported by the membership, when it votes on a new federal spokesperson — a position currently occupied by moderate Jörg Meuthen.

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