As Germany goes to the polls on Sunday in general elections that mark the end of the 16-year Angela Merkel era, the extreme-left party Die Linke stands a greater chance than ever of forming part of a new government – despite its roots in East Germany’s ruling Communists and radical foreign policy making it anathema to many voters.
In all the hypothesising about post-vote governing coalitions that always characterises German general election campaigns, never before has a red-red-green coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and Die Linke – seemed like a serious possibility.
This is astonishing because Die Linke (“The Left”) is still a fringe concern – not even guaranteed to get the minimum five percent of the vote required to get into the Bundestag.
As former US president Lyndon B. Johnson famously said, the iron rule of politics is “learn to count”. After its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz cast himself as Merkel’s heir – mimicking her art of making lack of charisma a selling point – the SPD established a long-running poll lead. The latest surveys show Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has eaten into that lead – with the SPD now just three points ahead – but even so, it looks like the SPD and Greens may well scrape together the numbers for a coalition with a tiny Die Linke caucus.
“There are two factors which explain why a red-red-green coalition is now being taken seriously,” explained Thorsten Holzhauser, a political scientist at the Theodor Heuss Haus Foundation in Stuttgart and an expert on Die Linke.
“Firstly, the SPD and Greens have – for once – not ruled out the possibility; secondly, according to certain polls such a left-wing coalition has the numbers for an absolute majority in the Bundestag.”
Ex-Communists ‘used to power’
Although its Bundestag grouping is unlikely to amount to much more than the five percent minimum, Die Linke is keen to govern. The party has published a Sofortprogramm (a list of policies to implement immediately if it gains power).
On the surface, such an appetite for power in Germany’s democratic system seems surprising for a party descended from the Communist Party that ruled East Germany – and whose Bundestag caucus is dominated by MPs opposed to any compromise with mainstream parties.
But beneath the surface, Die Linke’s roots are a reason why the party has such an appetite for power, Holzhauser said, noting that its East German Communist ancestor was “very much used to exercising power”. At the same time, he continued, the extreme-left party has got used to a certain degree of pragmatism in Germany’s federal regions, “making compromises in order to enter government at that level”.
Some two decades ago, Die Linke’s ancestor, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PSD), struck deals to participate in several regional government coalitions in the former East Germany – including in the Berlin region in 2002. Die Linke has even governed 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 has refused to rule out a coalition including Die Linke, he has expressed far more enthusiasm for ruling alongside the Greens.
“The SPD’s centrist wing is axiomatically anti-Communist and wants nothing to do with the extreme left,” Holzhauser observed.
Scholz is very much a member of this centrist wing – one of the “least enthusiastic” for governing with Die Linke, Holzhauser put it.
Even before he became Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister in 2018, SPD chancellor candidate had already made himself a leftist bête noir during his tenure as the party’s general-secretary from 2002 to 2004, under then chancellor Gerhard Schroder. In this role Scholz was a cheerleader for Schroder’s flagship policy, the Agenda 2010 economic reform programme – which cut both taxes and the German welfare system. Many international observers and voices on the German right credit this programme with restoring the country’s economic dynamism and facilitating years of solid export-led growth – but Agenda 2010 aroused fury among SPD leftists, who saw it as a betrayal of their party’s principles.
Consequently, the Social Democrats’ hard left joined up with the PSD to form Die Linke in 2007 – a major source of SPD animus against the leftist party.
Alliance with Russia?
Foreign policy is another big source of tension between the SPD and Die Linke: The extreme left party inherited some of the old Communist anti-Western sensibility. Despite removing the perennial demand to abolish NATO from its Sofortprogramm, Die Linke remains opposed to the Western, liberal democratic alliance: The party’s co-leader Janine Wissler said in a TV debate on September 13 that she wants to get rid of NATO and replace it with a broader alliance containing Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It seems the Greens, too, find this difficult to stomach: Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock entrenched the party’s renunciation of pacifism back in November 2020, telling Suddeutsche Zeitung that Germany should increase defence spending and “strengthen European sovereignty” while retaining deep ties to the US.
Thus, it is unsurprising that after an unimpressive campaign under gaffe-prone chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, the CDU is enjoying an uptick in the polls after Laschet and Merkel started emphasising the risk of Die Linke entering government.
Holzhauser identified two further obstacles to Die Linke getting the five percent of the vote needed to enter the Bundestag: Firstly, the extreme-left party is “very divided between radicals and pragmatists” – and an image of disunity “plays badly” with the German electorate. Secondly, the party lacks a leading figure with broad appeal like the SPD’s Scholz and the Greens’s Baerbock – which is crucial because many voters go to the polls “thinking about who they want to become the next chancellor”.
Nevertheless, most SPD and Green members think their policy agenda are “broadly compatible” with that of Die Linke, Holzhauser added.
But most importantly, the pursuit of power means Scholz will likely overlook all of these problems with Die Linke if they have MPs in the Bundestag to let him form a government, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, a major voice of Germany’s mainstream left.
This article was adapted from the original in French.