Germany: Die Linke now third biggest party as coalition talks begin

Issue 
Die Linke is now the third largest party in German parliament.

Germany’s September 22 federal elections delivered victory to the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Alliance, despite forces to their left winning a majority of seats.

Die Linke (the Left Party) has emerged the third largest in the Bundestag (German parliament).

The Chancellor Angela Merkel-led alliance scored their best result since German re-unification in 1990, with more than 18 million votes (41.5%).

Despite this 7.8% swing, the alliance, comprised of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and its regional Bavarian sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), remain unable to rule in its own right, falling five seats short.

Results

In fact, a majority to the left of the incumbents exists made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Die Linke and the Greens, making a government based on a coalition of these forces theoretically possible.

The lack of a clear majority for Merkel is largely due to the decimation of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which was a coalition partner for the past four years. The right-wing “free market” party suffered a 9.8% swing against it, failing to the5% needed to enter the Bundestag.

This is the first time since World War II that the FDP has won no seats nationally.

Despite a modest gain of 2.7% since the 2009 poll, the main opposition party, the SPD, suffered one of its worst results since World War II, winning only 25.7%. The only time the party did worse was after it took part in a “grand coalition” led by Merkel from 2005-09. That government raised the retirement age to 67 and increased consumption taxes.

The SPD tried desperately to differentiate itself from the CDU-CSU incumbents, with a campaign focused on social issues, including the introduction of an 8.50 euro ($12.30) minimum wage.

The party lined the streets with placards calling for an end to poverty for the elderly and affordable rents. With Peer Steinbrück at the helm, the party struggled to convince voters it was genuine.

Steinbrück was one of the key architects of SPD's Agenda 2010, which was pushed by the SPD-led government in 2003. It was the largest attack on wages, job security and welfare since WWII.

The attacks contained in Agenda 2010 gave German capitalist a big productivity advantage based on low wages. Indeed, the SPD never misses chance to remind Merkel that the German export-led economic recovery is down to it.

More Merkel

Merkel's campaign message was simple — Germany is better off than the rest of Europe. At the same time she was able to avoid having the euro-crisis and Germany's role in it being at centre of the campaign. The SPD's and the Greens support over the last four years for Merkel's austerity driven strategy made her task all the more easy.

Although Germany has not faced the type of bitter austerity polices the Merkel government has demanded nations such as Spain, Greece and Portugal endure, the outlook for ordinary Germans is far from rosy. While official unemployment figures generally understate reality, the Germany government has mastered the art.

Unemployment is officially 6.8% (2.94 million), but a further 1.3 million are employed in jobs that are so poorly paid they remain entitled to claim the unemployment benefit.

A further 7.47 million are employed in so called “mini jobs” that allow employers to pay super-low wages and avoid costs such as pension and health payments. Germany has no national minimum wage.

Certainly the conditions are not the kind normally associated with delivering a ruling conservative party a 7.8% swing. But the ability to point to the dire economic situations in Europe’s south and with the SPD viewed as representing more of the same, shines a light on the result.

The lie of a prosperous and secure Germany for all has been well sold, even to many who experience anything but prosperity on a daily basis.

Despite the strong result for the incumbents, voter turnout remained relativity low with 71.5% voting, the second lowest vote since 1945.

Forming government

Despite the lack a clear government majority, there is little cause for panic in Berlin. The SPD and Greens could both give Merkel the majority she needs, and both are being courted.

The Greens are very seriously considering joining a coalition government, despite the obvious political risks involved. Scheduled talks will involve Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Party governor of the conservative state of Baden-Württemberg. He has consistently said the Greens should be open to alliances with conservatives.

Lending Merkel a majority also presents problems for the SPD, which is keen to avoid a repeat of their damaging experience as a junior partner in 2005's “grand coalition”. Accordingly, it is dragging its feet in the hope of extracting concessions from Merkel that will enable it to sell such a deal to supporters.

Negotiations seem likely to be slow and could even approach the Christmas period. In the event of a likely CDU-CSU/SPD grand coalition, big opportunities will be open up for Die Linke, as the SPD further damages its ability to present itself as a progressive alternative.

Red-red-green?

A so-called red-red-green coalition involving the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens is numerically possible. However, the SPD has repeatedly ruled this out, citing “unrealistic” demands from Die Linke.

Formed in 2005, the party brought together a left break from the SPD-dominated trade union movement in the country’s west with the east German-based based Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

During the campaign Die Linke called on the SPD to support such an alliance, in order to achieve the “social” aims it claims to stand for. In doing so, the left-wing party was able to break a virtual media blackout that had excluded candidates from many television appearances.

Die Linke presented a list of 10 conditions that would have to be met in order to enter coalition.

These include: a minimum wage of 10 euros ($14.50) an hour; lowering the retirement age and raising the pension; raising the top tax rate to 53%; greater access to health services; withdrawing all soldiers from foreign missions and a ban on arms exports; no bailout of private banks in the euro-zone; and a range of other strategies covering renewable energies, social rights and democratic participation.

Inside Die Linke, there are a range of views as to whether these conditions represent a starting point for negotiations, or represent a tactic aimed against the SPD.

Indicting support for compromise, co-chair Katja Kipping told Die Zeit Online: “We have good reasons to demand 10 euros an hour. However, as I said the move in that direction is decisive, we can negotiate about the exact amount.”

Other party leaders have qualified comments in relation to withdrawing all troops from oversea missions.

Scoring 3.75 million votes (8.6%), Die Linke outpolled the Greens with 8.4%. This represents 1.36 million fewer votes for the left-wing party than in 2009, but after a series a devastating election results in Germany’s west since 2011, it is a significant comeback.

Political compromises made while participating in regional coalition governments with the SPD and Greens badly damaged the party’s standing with supporters.

Die Linke campaigners on the streets of Berlin are frequently confronted with questions from left-wing voters about the party's history of support for partial privatisation of public housing estates in the city.

Perhaps most importantly, the party polled more than 5% in every west German region, except the traditional conservative bastions in the south of Bavaria and Baben Wuntemburg. In the regional elections held simultaneously in the state of Hesse, the party also achieved the 5% threshold.

This result undermines attempts to portray the party as an “old east” party with no significant support in the west.

In the west Berlin suburb of Neukolln, the party achieved 14.3% and won more than 20% in the northern part of the suburb. This result appears to reflect strong connections with local campaigns, including a referendum to save to the old Templehof airfield for recreational use and bring the electricity utility back into public hands.

In the central suburb of Hamburg, the party scored 12%. There, the party has been central to the “right to the city” movement and the successful referendum campaign to bring the electricity utility back into municipal ownership.

Few expected such a strong result in Hesse. In the state, the party was strongly involved in the movement against an airport expansion, supporting strikes at Amazon and Burger King, and taking part in the Blockuppy protests at the meetings of the European Central Bank.

Rise of right-wing euro sceptics

Formed only months ago and awash with cash, Alternative for Germany (AfD) attracted more than two million votes (4.7%). The party advocates an exit from the euro and an end to German funding for “bailouts” of other European states.

Appealing to Germans who feel anxious about their pension savings and employment security, the party has sought to tap into anti-immigration and nationalist sentiment. It has the support of a minority current among big business, who believe a return to the Deutchmark would be to their advantage.

Leading figures including ex-CDU politicians and former president of the German Industrialists Federation Hans Olaf Henkel.

A Die Linke analysis estimates that 360,000 of the votes for AfD came from former Die Linke supporters. Die Linke has been consistent in opposing the austerity agenda pushed by the German government on other governments in Europe, but it was unable to break through into mainstream discussion with a left response to the euro crisis during the election campaign. This left the ground open for the AfD to occupy.

The German Greens have long shown its willingness to take part in coalition governments with the SPD and support social attacks —including the notorious Agenda 2010. Like the SPD, it tried to recast its image during the campaign, focussing on social issues including advocating a minimum wage and increases in social spending.

The Greens campaign was made harder by a vicious media campaign to associate lead candidate Jürgen Trittin with a party policy advocating changes to laws relating to sex between minors and adults during the 1980s.

After a lower than expected result with only 8.4% (down by 2.3%), former Greens foreign minister in the SPD-Greens coalition, Joschka Fischer, launched a public broadside against party leaders, calling their “leftist course” a “fatal mistake”.

His view has been echoed by others Greens leaders. A leadership shake up appears likely after several high profile resignations.

Whatever the outcome, the Greens faces a dilemma as it tries to recast itself as a broad-based so-called Volkspartei (“people’s party”), but in the process risks leaving the left-progressive ground to Die Linke.

[Jody Betzien is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance living in Berlin.]