News | Social Movements / Organizing - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Europe - Democratic Socialism Die Linke and the 2021 Federal Elections

The party faces a disadvantageous political constellation, strong counterforces, internal conflicts, and stagnation


Jörg Schlinder, Janine Wissler, and Dietmar Bartsch of Die Linke unveil the party’s posters for the 2021 federal election campaign in Berlin, July 2021. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Martin Heinlein/Die Linke

Despite considerable successes in party building, organizing, strengthened social movements (Fridays for Future, the tenants’ movement, Black Lives Matter, anti-police law movements, etc.) and Die Linke as an important partner in them, as well as a few exemplary left-wing governments on the state level, Germany’s main socialist party, Die Linke, is stagnating at 7 percent in the polls (2 percent less than recent election results—or worse). A look at possible causes should in no way distract from engagement in the election campaign, but rather clarify its importance once again.

Caught in the Middle

Mario Candeias is the director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis in Berlin.

This article first appeared in LuXemburg.

Nothing has been decided yet and much is in flux, but even before the pandemic, it was not easy for Die Linke to generate visibility, hampered by a threefold polarization between the ruling, neoliberal “centre”, the radical Right, and the Greens as their liberal-ecological counterpart.[1] Die Linke has struggled to identify a real role in this constellation, its “political use value” is not clear to many. As a result, the party could hardly penetrate the media and was (deliberately) kept quiet. The pandemic made the situation even more difficult, not only because such crises always mark the hour of the executive and many left-wing practices are suspended (strikes, demonstrations, organizing in neighbourhoods, door-to-door visits, or just meetings of different groups and levels).

A particular difficulty was also to find a recognizable position concerning the crisis management of the pandemic: in part, Die Linke saw itself forced to support tough government measures against the spread of the virus, while the total opposition was occupied by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the so-called Querdenker (a confused bunch of esoteric, anthroposophist, hippie-like people, open to right-wing alliances)—a sensible and solidary middle ground that primarily focused on social consequences but at the same time tried to balance freedom and health rights was once again marginalized in the (media) discourse or defamed as “undecided”. Here, the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) were able to benefit from the mood, moderately differentiating themselves from the AfD but making (irresponsible) criticism of the measures, and improved by up to 12 percent in the polls.

As a result, Die Linke is increasingly better-organized and networked in the active parts of the movements and civil society, but does not sufficiently reach other parts of the population (some of its own electoral base). The new practice of connective class politics has not yet been sufficiently generalized and has yet to bear fruit, while the old form of the party as an “anti-neoliberal movement” gathering different parts of the population from the Agenda 2010 period has long since been exhausted in the face of new lines of social conflict. In this way, the party represents more and more the active parts of progressive voters and less the passive groups of voters, once open to the Left—an effect that the party’s class orientation should actually counteract, but has not had the time.

In this context, the defeat of the Berlin rent cap was particularly disadvantageous. The rent cap was brought down by the conservative Second Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court. The capitalist class and the conservative parties lost the struggle on the level of public opinion and popular support and were far from any parliamentary majority in the parliament of the Berlin city-state, but that is why the state in capitalism is organized in a way so as to permit the bourgeoisie to hold several defensive lines: a juridical class struggle to stop any transformative step pushed forward by the Left and to bring down even popular laws (irrespective of other juridical options in favour of the rent cap). In fact it was a purely formal argument: the federal state of Berlin lacks the right to enforce such a law because it should be a pure competence or authority of the federal government. The goal was to bring down the “rebellious” Berlin government. This is extremely problematic not only for tenants in Berlin and elsewhere but for Die Linke as such, because it was the most popular project the party had achieved in the last years, creating visibility and credibility.

Although this has promoted an emboldened mood among activists and large parts of the population, strengthened the idea of ​​a nationwide rent cap and spurred the initiative for a referendum on the expropriation of large real estate companies, it also led to too much disappointment and bitterness. If even an elected government and implemented laws cannot change something because a conservative constitutional court denies them their authority (contrary to a multitude of legal voices and official reports), this leads to widespread fatalism: “Die Linke means well, but in the end they are not allowed or able to change anything.”

Infighting and Mixed Messages

In addition, simmering intra-party conflicts were lapped up and exacerbated by the media and intentionally used against Die Linke—even by public figures in the internal power struggle. Admittedly, “identity and class politics do not constitute a contradiction in terms. But to secure one’s own influence, this supposed conflict is constantly fuelled”, as Daniel Reitzig wrote recently in Jacobin. This line of conflict of false oppositions cannot be explained here, but it does lead to the point where some potential Linke voters and activists are turning away from the party, because of the verbal attacks against anti-racist, feminist, queer, and ecological practices from within the party, and others because they believe the constant critique that the party allegedly no longer represents the interests of the workers and those left behind. People are cancelling their party membership for both reasons—not in huge numbers, but the frustration is enough to impede membership growth.

Another closely related conflict within the party is how to deal with the ecological question: for the majority in the party, social and ecological questions are inseparable, and this is precisely what marks the difference to the Greens; yet for a minority that is powerful due to prominent persons with good media access, the party’s radical ecological programme only chases after the Greens and distracts from real, core social issues. This also leads to the party being perceived as undecided: although it also has the most progressive social-ecological programme in the eyes of relevant sections of the environmentalist groups and the climate movement, as “the only party” (according to Fridays for Future) devoted to achieving the 1.5C warming target, there is a lack of credibility when leading representatives of the party and above all the parliamentary fraction repeatedly question the programme in the media. And this despite the fact that in polls of Linke voters, the ecological question is always highly ranked, in second place behind the social question.

Perhaps the party can no longer attract a relevant number of Green voters, but it can still lose large numbers of its own voters to the Greens, as every election in recent years shows. Another example of how social contradictions are not mediated in such a way that they are progressively resolved (keywords are “social-ecological system change” or “left Green New Deal”), but remain stuck in false opposites, splitting the party’s base.

With an ambiguous polyphony and mixed messages, the party unsettled voters and activists and thus missed a historical window at least twice, first during the refugee movement in 2015 and then with the start of Fridays for Future in 2018 and the escalation of the climate crisis. The party had the right programmes, but was unable to represent them with credibility in the face of the fierce inner battles.

Regional Specificities

Specific regional aspects also play a role: namely, strength of the PDS, the predecessor of Die Linke in the East, with its large (albeit aging and often passive) membership and a core electorate that was very much identified with the party, made up of the former state employees of the East German state. This generation will completely break away as members and voters within ten years. This process leads to a diminished presence on the ground. Either the party gains new members and voters, or it is approaching its end as a generational project in the East.

In addition, there are homemade mistakes (such as in Brandenburg, where Die Linke governed until recently and approved new police laws, enacted failed tax policies, and neglected to engineer an exit from the local coal industry) and a political style that focuses on small reforms, improved governance or better opposition, on the politics of small steps, especially in the parliamentary space, and not on what Antonio Gramsci called the “spirit of distinction” that relies on a clear distinction and a recognizable, sharp profile vis-à-vis other parties.

Nevertheless, in recent years more young people have joined the party in the East. New members cannot compensate for the loss of the older generation, but like the national average, they are predominantly young and active—against the Right, against an overall development perceived as threatening, and for left-wing policies on the ground together with the people. Here the party has a real chance of becoming the opposite pole of the AfD, and at least in Thuringia it has already achieved that.

In sum, this results in a mélange of demographic, organizational, and political problems, unresolved internal conflicts with an overall political constellation that makes it difficult to become visible as an important force. Even if Die Linke succeeds in becoming visible, it faces overpowering opponents. Against this backdrop, it is not a small thing if the party under new leadership can hold its weight in elections and again enter the Berlin city-state government.

However, such a political constellation can—despite some good work—translate into a dynamic that endangers the existence of the party. It is precisely this—and not the mistakes that are always made—that marks the precarious situation in which the Social Democrats (through their own fault) have gotten into for a long time and which Die Linke could now also get into. Understanding political constellations is important in order to correctly assess problems and opportunities and to avoid a destructive and defeatist mood.

Time and again in parts of Die Linke we come across an attitude in which the organization itself is talked about negatively, in which internal disagreements become more important than the actual opponents. Discussions are not about what is held in common, but about what separates us, and where each side accuses the other of a lack of strategy. However, a party that takes the courage away from itself will find itself in dire straits. A culture of debate is needed in which differences are debated and respected and critique is encouraged, but where common aims remain the main focus.

This is not only a problem for Die Linke, but all radical-left parties in Europe. The left-populist project represented by Podemos, La France Insoumiese, or #aufstehen (regardless of their major differences) have reached clear limits (or failed), as have the popular upheavals of a renewed social democracy under Corbyn and Sanders (the latter, after all, was able to move politics to the left) along with the pluralistic, “connective” left-wing parties such as SYRIZA, Die Linke, or their Scandinavian sister parties. Neither representatives of a strategy of opposition nor of a left-wing government, of reform or of radical, class-political or socialist strategies can claim to have found the right “recipe” in the interregnum that began with the financial crisis in 2007–2008.

The adequate form of party-movement for a period of faltering neoliberal hegemony, the rise of the radical Right and authoritarian forces, and green capitalism has not yet been found. The political Left has largely the right answers to the challenges, but not yet the necessary practices, the necessary presence in neighbourhoods and on the shop floor, nor the sufficient communication channels and the right approach for the large plurality within its constituency.

Programmatically, a lot of things point in the right direction, there is also no analytical problem, but rather a lack of a powerful organization of the party and the political Left as a whole. Otherwise it will be crushed between the other forces. So will the interregnum end without a relevant, powerful Left? In these particular times, it is important to get engaged to create a strong(er) Left, in order to keep paths open for the future and be able to develop our existing strengths.

Looking Ahead

Four outcomes of the federal elections are possible:

  1. A green-red-red government with the Green Party in the lead, together with the Social Democrats and Die Linke—but this is unlikely, because the three have no common project, even if, according to polls, a parliamentary majority may be conceivable. Both the SPD and the Greens will try to avoid such a coalition, mostly because such a government would have only a minimal majority in parliament (or not even that) and would face a huge counter-campaign from the media, the neoliberal mainstream, and the populist radical right, and strong opposition to implementing its projects from within the bureaucracy and from finance and industrial capital, from real estate companies, and the wealthy. The social-ecological bloc that would support this government comprises only about a third of the population and is only partially organized as such. This would represent a rather weak constellation.
  2. The most promising coalition would be one between the conservative CDU and the Greens. This would represent a new project for the green modernization of the economy and society. Important capital factions would support it, but also huge segments of progressives. There would be a large social consensus for such a project, even if it conceals many contradictions. Thus, especially for the Greens it makes tactical sense to be open to both options, with a strong inclination to the latter. But one has to be clear that the Greens would not be able to implement their ambitious plans to avert climate change with the conservatives, and certainly not their social agenda. These goals can only be realized in a progressive coalition with Die Linke and the Social Democrats.
  3. Due the internal contradiction of this project, a third possibility would be a coalition securing the power of a weakened neoliberal bloc, a coalition between the weakened partners of the grand coalition—CDU and SPD—and the FDP. This would mean the continuation and incremental reform of Merkel-era policies, weak in terms of substance and without a project, but probably with a stable social majority. We could call this (self-titled) “coalition for Germany” (the first coalition of this kind in Saxony-Anhalt, more of a “petit-German alliance” as Michael Bartsch called it) a coalition of late-neoliberalism.
  4. A theoretically possible fourth coalition would be the so-called “traffic light” coalition between the SPD, the FDP, and the Greens (who would probably appoint the chancellor). This kind of coalition failed to materialize in recent years due to an FDP that has moved much further to the right, opposing any climate policies and advocating old-style neoliberal social and economic policies. They are perceived as a barrier to progressive policies. Nevertheless, such a coalition emerged in the last elections in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the only successful example so far. But there is a constant debate around it, which would represent the so-called German Mittelstand (a kind of ideological mix-up of middle class and small- and medium-sized companies), opening up a coalition without Die Linke as well as the CDU that has governed for the last 16 years.

As far as Die Linke is concerned, the first option would be the most exciting, promising, but also the most dangerous. Option two would pose a chance to become the social-ecological opposition to the left of a green capitalist government, a point of condensation for civil society and the social movements. Die Linke could win over the more radical parts of the Greens, frustrated by too many government compromises with the CDU that ignored climate change for decades. The third option would not only be the worst one for Die Linke, overshadowed by the Green Party as the far bigger opposition with effective media outreach, but also for German society as a whole—a coalition of two steps forward and one step backward, or even the other way around, slow adaptation to social and climate change, unable to grapple with the problems or to create a new social consensus. This would be also produce perfect conditions for the further rise of the radical Right. A future conservative-green coalition is thus Die Linke’s main point of attack in the election campaign, at the same time such a constellation is not only the most likely, but also the most favourable for the party itself.

Nevertheless, all of these scenarios remain far below what would be necessary for the coming social challenges. It remains unclear how the financial consequences of the pandemic will be mitigated, and at the same time unprecedented sums must be invested in social and material infrastructure as well as the socio-ecological transition towards climate neutrality without lifting the debt brake. Germany also needs an effective reversal in tax policy, meaning capital and the rich must be held to much more account when it comes to financing public wealth. It remains unclear how the necessary, far-reaching measures of an ecological transformation in our mode of production and mode of living are to be implemented—democratically—in the little time that remains.

The reconstruction and expansion of social infrastructures and a socio-ecological system change are still a connective perspective for a broader progressive project. An important use value ​​of Die Linke could be: anyone who wants real social and ecological policies must vote for Die Linke, so as not to leave the Social Democrats and the Greens on a capitalist modernization path or keep things going as they are, but to strengthen their own left-wing credibility—goals that they can only implement with Die Linke, and no one else. It would be sensible to use four years in opposition to stabilize the party and raise its profile against the CDU-Green coalition. But by then it could also be too late to initiate the urgent social-ecological transformation.

Without Die Linke, the necessary restructuring will not happen, even if that might not be the best option in terms of party tactics. So let us put our recognizable “minimum projects” forward and work on “productive conflicts”. Let us do our part to keep open perspectives for a future for the Left and thus for everyone.

[1] The AfD themselves framed the Greens as their adversary, the “Third Pole”, through their attacks against the “grubby 1968ers”, their “genderism”, their “eco-dictatorship” of the “well-situated and rich”, etc. Their polemics about “genderism”, “cancel culture”, and the “prohibition party”, which are now deeply anchored in the mainstream media, have destructive consequences for the level of social debate, but at the same time have strengthened the profile of the Greens.