As Germany heads to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary elections that mark the end of 16-year-old Angela Merkel, the far-left party Die Linke is more likely than ever to be part of a new government – despite its roots in the ruling Communists in East Germany and its radical foreign policy, making it anathema to many voters.
In all the assumptions about the post-vote government coalitions that still characterize German general election campaigns, never before a red-red-green coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and Die Linke – seemed like a serious possibility.
It’s amazing because Die Linke (“The left”) is still a marginal concern – not even guaranteed to get the minimum five percent of the vote required to enter the Bundestag.
As former US President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, the iron rule of politics is “learn to count.” After its candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz presented himself as Merkel’s heir – imitating her art of making a selling point of lack of charisma – the SPD established a long lead in the polls. The latest polls show that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has eaten away at that lead – with the SPD only three points ahead – but even so, it looks like the SPD and the Greens may well rally the figures of a coalition with a very small Die Linke caucus.
“There are two factors that explain why a red-red-green coalition is now taken seriously,” explained Thorsten Holzhauser, political scientist at the Theodor Heuss Haus Foundation in Stuttgart and expert in Die Linke.
“Firstly, the SPD and the Greens have – for once – not ruled out the possibility; second, according to some polls, such a left-wing coalition has the figures for an absolute majority in the Bundestag.
The ex-communists “accustomed to power”
Although his Bundestag regrouping is unlikely to exceed the minimum of five percent, Die Linke wants to govern. The party issued a Sofort program (a list of policies to be implemented immediately if he gains power).
At first glance, such an appetite for power in the German democratic system seems surprising for a party that emerged from the Communist Party that ruled East Germany – and whose Bundestag caucus is dominated by MPs opposed to any compromise with the dominant parties.
But beneath the surface Die LinkeThe party’s roots are one reason the party has such an appetite for power, said Holzhauser, noting that his East German Communist ancestor was “very used to wielding power”. At the same time, he continued, the far left party has become accustomed to a certain degree of pragmatism in the German federal regions, “making compromises to enter government at this level”.
Twenty years ago Die LinkeThe ancestor of, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PSD), made agreements to participate in several regional government coalitions in the former East Germany, including in the Berlin region in 2002. Die Linke has even ruled in a red-red-green coalition in the northwestern city-state of Bremen since 2019.
However, the SPD and to some extent the Greens have been reluctant to bring the far left party into government. Although Scholz refused to rule out a coalition comprising Die Linke, he expressed much more enthusiasm to govern alongside the Greens.
“The centrist wing of the SPD is axiomatically anti-Communist and wants nothing to do with the far left,” observed Holzhauser.
Scholz is very much a member of this centrist wing – one of the “less enthusiastic” to rule with Die Linke, Holzhauser said so.
Even before becoming Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister in 2018, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor had already made himself a leftist black beast during his tenure as party secretary general from 2002 to 2004, under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. In this role, Scholz was a leader of Schroder’s flagship policy, the Agenda 2010 economic reform program, which reduced both taxes and the German welfare system. Many international observers and German right-wing voices credit the program for restoring the country’s economic dynamism and facilitating years of solid export-led growth – but Agenda 2010 has sparked anger among leftists in the SPD, who saw it as a betrayal of the principles of their party.
From then on, the hard left of the Social Democrats joined forces with the PSD to form Die Linke in 2007 – a major source of SPD animosity against the left party.
Alliance with Russia?
Foreign policy is another great source of tension between the SPD and Die Linke: The far left party has inherited part of the old anti-Western communist sensibility. Despite the withdrawal of the eternal demand for the abolition of NATO from its Sofort program, Die Linke remains opposed to the Western Liberal Democratic Alliance: Party co-leader Janine Wissler said in a televised debate on September 13 that she wanted to get rid of NATO and replace it with a larger alliance containing the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
It seems the Greens, too, are struggling to put up with this: Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock enshrined the party’s renunciation of pacifism in November 2020, telling Suddeutsche Zeitung that Germany should increase defense spending and “Strengthen European sovereignty” while maintaining close ties with the United States.
So, it’s no surprise that after an unimpressive campaign under the leadership of gaffe-prone chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, the CDU saw a slight uptick in the polls after Laschet and Merkel began to highlight the risk of Die Linke enter government.
Holzhauser identified two other obstacles to Die Linke get the five percent of the vote needed to enter the Bundestag: First, the far left party is “very divided between radicals and pragmatists” – and an image of disunity “plays badly” with the German electorate. Second, the party lacks a prominent figure with broad appeal like Scholz of the SPD and Baerbock of the Greens – which is crucial as many voters go to the polls “thinking who they want to be the next chancellor”.
However, most of the SPD and Greens believe their political agenda is “broadly compatible” with that of Die Linke, added Holzhauser.
But more importantly, the pursuit of power means Scholz will likely overlook all of these issues with Die Linke if they have members of the Bundestag to let it form a government, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, a major voice of the dominant left in Germany.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.