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Is Die Linke a real alternative for Germany?

Categories: Features

With the left in flux in the UK and throughout Europe, Jasmin Maerker takes a critical look at the Left Party in Germany

While the British left is pretty much non-existent in parliament, the German party Die Linke has 75 out of 620 seats in the Bundestag and thus constitutes the fourth biggest party in parliament. In Germany, Die Linke continues to be seen by many as an alternative to neoliberalism and austerity and as a driving force in combating fascism. In Britain it is often cited as an example of a strong left.

The struggles against capitalism and imperialism and the fight for a more just and equal society are prioritised in Die Linke’s manifesto; but the question is whether the party is capable of, or indeed really willing to advance these causes. The party’s record in practical activity raises some questions on this front. Not only has it stood weak in previous red-red coalitions of federal state governments, but some statements from former members of the executive could have easily been mistaken for those of far right-wingers.

The PDS (party of social democrats) was formed shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall from members of the former ruling East German Party of Socialist Unity (SED). The new party condemned the restrictions of freedom and democracy East German citizens suffered under a Stalinist regime and was looking to actively participate in the creation of a new democratic socialist republic. No such Republic was achieved, as many former Communists quickly capitulated to the capitalism of the West.

While East German citizens were benefiting from more democratic rights and freedom, they also suffered major economic loss due to international and West German firms taking over former state property. The party had wide support from East Germans with 16.4% in the last GDR elections but only achieved 2,4% of the votes in the first general elections in 1990. A quick transition from capitalism to socialism was no longer in sight as the new government rejected all East German notions to maintain the good sides of the socialist era. This led to an image change for the party as it altered its manifesto and removed “Socialist Unity“ from its name and was called the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). However, It still failed to attract votes in West Germany but was able to recruit some members from the West, mainly from the 68′ generation, the Green party, the German communist party (DKP) and other left-wing connections.

The party achieved great successes around the year 2004 after introduction of Agenda2010 by the green-red coalition (greens/SPD) under Gerhard Schroeder. Agenda2010 consisted of a series of ‘welfare reforms’ with social and unemployment benefit cuts giving rise to anti-capitalist critique and mass protests. Not all SPD members were happy about the ‘welfare reforms’ , some felt betrayed by their party and formed the WASG(labour and social justice- electoral alternative) in the search for true social democracy. As the PDS still was mostly an East German Party and the WASG based in West Germany debates about merging started shortly after. At the time however the PDS governed together with the SPD in a red-red coalition in Berlin (2002-2011) and in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (1998-2006).

The PDS did little to combat Gerhard Schroeders austerity measures, and actually supported the privatisation of public poverty in both federal states. In Berlin they readily implemented HartzVI, an unemployment benefit reform part of Agenda2010 that made the poorest even poorer. Nor did the PDS cover itself in glory in Mecklenburg Vorpommern when it took part in making millions available for security at the G8 summit in 2007. In June 2006 it agreed to a law extending police competencies, among those new competencies being forceful blood taking, preventive phone monitoring and video surveillance. All of these measures would be used against PDS activists at the G8 the following year.

In 2007 the PDS then finally merged with WASG and Die Linke was formed. It was led by Oscar Lafontaine, an influential ex-SPD politician and Gregor Gysi, former PDS executive. This fusion helped the party to gain popularity in West Germany but at the same time intensified inner party quarrels. The West faction was cautious of the potential of the party capitulating to neoliberalism just like the SPD, while members from the East were occupied with concerns that the party would take an authoritarian turn like the original Socialist Unity Party. There were not only conflicts between the East and West factions but, as with any coalition, between different groups with different backgrounds, goals and visions.

Die Linke’s initial strategy focused on illustrating how the SPD was not socialist. They gained much support from people who were outraged by the SPD’s attack on the working class and their decision to intervene in the Afghan war. However, it wasn’t long until party leaders used right wing populist rhetoric to in an attempt to capture some of the middle ground. In a 2005 interview, Lafontaine declared that racism is caused by immigration and that it is the state’s responsibility to protect German citizens against the loss of jobs due to immigrants working for less money. Justifying his statement later he said: ”The issue of cheap labour competition cannot be left to the Nazi party (NPD). The NPD will have problems if a left party continuously stands up for workers rights.” Gregor Gysi, who is still executive of the parliamentary fraction, agreed and said the left needs to win back misguided NPD voters. Both Lafontaine and Gysi have a history of selling out their socialist politics. Lafontaine demanded longer running of machinery through weekend work (1989) and the rise of the pension age (2003) while Gregory Gysi called for the privatisation of pension above existential minimum (1992) and cut back thousands of jobs in Berlin’s public sector while his time as economic senator (2001) just to name a few of the list. The popularity of the party declined when Oscar Lafontaine retreated at the end of 2009 suffering from cancer and the future of the coalition looked uncertain.

The WASG part was threatening to break up the party if Dietmar Bartsch would become Lafontaine’s successor. Bartsch supports coalitions in whatever form, doesn’t like radical politics, his motto is: Politics not Ideology. A party that has a good political program, but can’t win majorities is of no use to him and he social democrats kindly offered to take him on board. In 2010, through a ‘long night’ guided by Gysi; the party agreed on a more balanced executive with Klaus Ernst and Gesine Loetzsch, but this combination intensified stereotypes about the East-West conflict causing Die Linke to get voted out of the Northwest-Rhinephalia parliament in 2012, after losing most of their votes to the newly-formed Pirate Party. With Ernst and Loetsch deemed incapable after a few months in office and the general elections in 2013 ahead it seemed a difficult task to find an executive strong enough to lead the party out of it’s crisis.

Two younger and more dynamic candidates have now came to the fore to help steer Die Linke back on track: Katja Kipping who previously focused on the PDS’s social agenda and contact to social movements and Bernard Riexinger who was president of the trade union Verdi. The party’s new election manifesto demands a 30 hour working week, a 6 hour day and a minimum wage of €10 (However, Riexinger recently said that Die Linke would also approve of an initial law incentive of a 8,50€ minimum wage (£7,20), which is barely enough to survive in most areas of Germany). The new chair may be capable but Die Linke has eight potential candidates who could form the head of the parliamentary fraction after the 2013 general elections among them Klaus Ernst, Gregor Gysi again and Sahra Wagenknecht. Wagenknecht recently drew comparisons between the politics of the Anti-Euro-Party (AFD) and Die Linke. It’s hard to see why the left wants to compare itself to a party with far-right tendencies promoting neoliberalism and austerity, similar to UKIP here, but Sahra Wagenknecht insisted: “Not everything is wrong about the AFD…It is undecided in which direction the AFD is heading and it would be wrong to say the party is full of populists.”

Maybe another right populist campaigning strategy in fear to lose protest votes to a newly formed party? It is hard to tell in which direction the party is heading after losing Oscar Lafontaine.

It is interesting to think that the former executives and most of the original members were used to governing as a majority whether as part of the SED or the SPD. They may never have understood how things can be changed from a minority perspective, but the new chairs were never part of either SED or SPD.

Obviously, there are many benefits of a strong left in parliament. Die Linke is good in opposition continually challenging the unabashed worship of the markets practiced by the rest of the German parliament. However, whether Die Linke’s renewal will be successful is dependent upon how successfully the East-West conflict can be resolved and whether the radicals will win over those wanting to whitewash socialist ideology turning the party into another neoliberal ‘left’. If the party keeps their word and really fights for the abolition of Agenda2010, solidarity health care and a true social welfare state then it will deserve the trust that the many leftists have in the party. On the contrary, if the party’s new executive repeats the mistakes of their successors, it would disappoints all those social movements, that focus on a parliamentary alternative with Die Linke. It will be nothing more than party that gives fake hope to all those who believe in change, a better, equal and just society.

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