These are interesting times for the Germany’s Left Party (Linkspartei). Since its emergence from the shadows of authoritarian rule in the former GDR, the Left Party has built its reputation largely around domestic issues. Most observers of German politics will recognize the Left Party as the successor to the Party of Democratic Socialism or PDS, which made the lingering social, economic, and political disparities felt by many Eastern Germans in the wake of reunification the centerpiece of its platform. While regional disparities continue to define the party on some level, the newly formed Left Party has gained an added reputation for its consistent stance against attacks on the welfare state such as former Chancellor Schröder’s Agenda 2010 program as well as more recent efforts to enact austerity measures in response to the prolonged Euro crisis. To combat these measures, the Left Party has consistently stuck to a platform denouncing the neoliberal agenda and promising to reinforce social democracy in the fight against growing poverty, unemployment, and wage inequality. The focus on these and other domestic issues has slowly increased the party’s credibility among voters, leading to consistent poll numbers between 8-10%.
The rapid rise of two related international issues, the civil war in Syria and the resulting flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe, have shaken up the political establishment and quickly displaced other domestic issues atop the political agenda. What implications will these events hold for the Left Party? More specifically, how will these recent developments affect the party’s future as it attempts to solidify its status as a credible alternative in Germany’s competitive multiparty system?
From one perspective these issues represent an existential crisis for the party. Judging by polling data and a series of important national and regional elections across Europe (e.g. Poland, France), parties on the far right are cashing in electorally by connecting the refugee crisis to voters’ growing fears of Islamic extremism, especially in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris. With refugee flows expected to increase over the next year and with no end to the Syrian crisis in sight, it’s not hard to imagine xenophobia and right-wing nationalism fueling the support of far right parties. In Germany, this sentiment has found political expression in the growing Pegida movement and in a new right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland, which could easily clear Germany’s electoral threshold if elections were held today. Viewed in this way, parties on the left may continue to lose traditional working class constituents bullied into believing that the far right’s solution of tightening borders and cultural exclusion will bring back more stable times.
Viewed in a different way, the rising threat from the far right could also represent an opportunity for the Left Party. Over the course of its history, the Left Party has overcome existential threats by successfully adapting to the shifting political climate. For example, in the first all-German election, the party found a way to shake off its authoritarian past by playing on the disillusionment felt by some East Germans. Furthermore, in 2007 the party once again escaped falling into obscurity by merging with a group of disaffected Social Democrats anchored in the West to refashion itself as an all-German party. Seen in this context, there is reason to believe that the party may be able to not only survive but also capitalize electorally in the new political climate. The parties most challenged by the refugee crisis appear to be those in the ruling Grand Coalition (CDU/CSU/SPD). In particular, the CDU under Chancellor Merkel is walking a political tightrope by balancing concern for human rights with placating the far right with measures to increase border security. The result has been discord within the ruling coalition, underscored above all by vocal challenges to Merkel’s leadership and the CDU’s recent slippage in the polls. In contrast to the ambiguity often expressed by the catch-all parties, the more ideological Left Party could define itself as the true alternative to the far right by preserving an unflinching support for human rights and an uncompromising stance against military intervention in Syria. The question remains whether current leadership is astute enough to capitalize on this opportunity or whether its voice will fade against the heated rhetoric of the far right.
Peter Doerschler, Assistant Professor of Politics, Bloomsburg
University of Pennslyvania
He is also author of “Die Linke: Still an Eastern Cultural Icon?’,
German Politics, 24 (3), 2015: 377-401.