Die Linke after the German general election

logo_die-linke_530x168They say that, in politics too, every cloud has a silver lining, and fortunately it can be reported that in the case of the German general elections the silver lining has a distinctly reddish shade, writes Thomas Kachel from Die Linke, Germany’s Left Party.

But firstly, a look at the deep black cloud hanging over Germany after September 22: The result of the conservative CDU, which failed only by five seats to secure the absolute majority of seats in the Bundestag (41.5 %) presents above all a resounding victory for the conservative right. The result is an expression of scepticism and a psychological longing for security on the part of a substantial majority of the German electorate – even if this sense of security is a fake projection successfully administered by ‘Mutti’  – ‘Mother’ Merkel. Merkel won these elections because she was able above all to present her economic policies, and predominantly her government’s policies of European austerity, as being without alternative.

In short, voters bought the easy neoliberal narrative that those Southern Europeans ‘have been living beyond their means’, a medley that has been played up and down each TV channel, and scribbled into each and every German newspaper column for the last four years, successfully crowding out the excesses of finance capital which lead to the financial crisis in the first place.  And even more disconcertingly, the new rightwing populist party AfD nearly made it into parliament, with an anti-immigration pledge, and a political platform which demanded the exit of southern European countries from the Euro area and even from the EU – thanks to the anti-southern racist insinuations of Merkel’s government, on which they were able to build. Agreeing with Merkel in the German-centric, neoliberal strategy in which the European crisis should be dealt with, the Social Democrats were never able to project themselves as a credible alternative with a consistent political programme, and again got trounced, with 25.7 % reaching their second worst result ever.

The result of Die Linke is indeed the the silver lining – 8.6 per cent of the national vote. There was overwhelming relief and rejoicing at the result: at the outset of the campaign, such a result had seemed almost unachievable – even surmounting the 5 per cent threshold, and thus the return to the Bundestag itself, had seemed at risk at times. These were the aftershocks of the Göttingen party conference 2012 – where bad-tempered infighting between the wings of the party had presented the right-wing media with many a happy occasion to portray the party as ‘politikunfähig’ – unable to do politics. But Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, the new co-chairs of the party, were able to calm the nerves again, and also the possibility of an exit from the Bundestag concentrated minds on both wings of the party.  Die Linke’s relative success is due to four factors:

Firstly, the party proved its old strength as the agenda-setter of political debate in Germany. According to pollster Infratest/Dimap, the three topics most on voters’ minds were appropriate wages and working conditions, the security of pensions, and the future of the European currency. On all three counts, Die Linke started the public debate on the issue, and in the elections it had a distinctive and clear message for voters. The party’s long-standing advocacy of the introduction of a federal minimum wage at 10 Euro per hour was clearly a vote winner.

Secondly, and contrary to much crowing on the right wing of the party, the clear stance of the party towards the Euro crisis has paid off resoundingly: Die Linke’s consistent rejection of the bail-out packages for Greece (which were only used to satisfy the demands of the lender banks) – was interpreted by the mainstream media as anti-European and reckless  – but the party did succeed in communicating to voters the message of the party: No to the Europe of the banks, yes to the Europe of the peoples.

Thirdly, the party is still able to mobilise votes with a clear and consistent anti-militaristic policy stance. Social Democrats and Greens have been converted to interventionist parties since the Yugoslav War – to an extent that leading right-wing social democrats even do away with the veil of ‘humanitarian intervention’ now and openly support the exercise of ‘German interests’ with military means. The unashamed war-mongering in the days immediately after the use of chemical weapons a few weeks prior to the elections showed how prone to military adventures all other parties are. The instinctive anti-war stance of a majority of the German population clearly chimes with the stance of the party. This indicates a bigger point:  While the reservoir of voters from which the party draws continues to be higher (in percentage points) in the East, the motivation to vote for Die Linke is characterised less and less by western or eastern origin but by all-federal determinants. And that’s a good thing too.

And finally, the party continues to shine in public with its figure heads: Gregor Gysi, chairman of the parliamentary party and ‘secret’ chairman of the party, continues to be the most important communicative asset of the party. His great ability is in his rhetorics and his communicative skills which easily make him one of the very few political super stars in German politics. But also Sarah Wagenknecht, the standard bearer of the party’s left wing, gave powerful and polished public appearances. She is widely tipped to succeed Gysi as the leader of the parliamentary party later in this parliament.

However, the party is not in a position to lean back comfortably: 3.3 per cent loss of the vote nationally needs to be heeded. And that means that the party has to address its responsibilities with regard to what is called the ‘post democracy’ phenomenon. Scores of analysts diagnose a broad ‘disconnect’ with the German political system, most of all with voters of the working class or the precariat. Parts of the German electorate are so removed from the democratic process that they now form a stable block of non-voters:  Almost one third of the entire German electorate did not exercise their right to vote last Sunday. In the East, this figure is even higher.  To harness the protest vote should be the foremost goal of a left-wing party, not least in order to contest the more and more fervent attempts of the right (the AfD, but also the Nazi party, NPD) to gain a foothold amongst this electorate. In order to reconnect these parts of the population, a cultural approach, an egalitarian culture of local engagement with the disconnected needs to be built, with the goals of self-empowerment and solidarity, so that – especially in impoverished urban neighbourhoods  – practical help and political activism go hand in hand. The party once had the pedigree of a ‘Kümmererpartei’ (‘the caring party’). To re-earn this image in the next four years is the surest way of stabilising last week’s relative success – and only then can the party afford to engage in coalition scenarios with the social democrats and Greens. Only through such ground work may the reddish silver lining be turned into a red dawn.

Thomas Kachel is researcher for peace and security policy of Die LINKE parliamentary party in the Bundestag

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