After months of what many in the media described as the most boring election campaign in decades, things are finally heating up in the run-up to the German federal elections on 26 September. The clear majority for a centrist government between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Greens that so many expected has vanished, and increasingly, it looks like finance minister Olaf Scholz, candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD), will find himself putting together a cabinet in a few weeks.
A lot of this can be chalked up to the disastrous performance of CDU candidate Armin Laschet, who was long considered the favourite to succeed Angela Merkel, yet has watched his polling numbers collapse over the last month. But what about the Greens’ surprising decline, the ongoing strength of the Free Democrats (FDP), and the stability of the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland? More importantly, how does the country’s strongest socialist force, Die Linke, size up?
Stefan Liebich has served in the German parliament as a representative for Die Linke since 2009. Until last year he served as the head of the Die Linke delegation to the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and as the parliamentary group’s foreign policy spokesperson.
Andreas Günther is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office recently hosted Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for Die Linke for the last 12 years, during a parliamentary visit to the United States. During his stay, office director Andreas Günther sat down with him to get an insider’s perspective on the turbulence in the German party landscape, who he thinks will end up leading the next government, and what kinds of strategies are most likely to bring success for the Left in parliament.
Germany will hold its next federal election on 26 September. Right now, the only thing we can say for sure is that, for the first time in 16 years, the next chancellor will not be named Angela Merkel. As a German living in the United States, I often find that progressives here are almost jealous of us having her as chancellor. Could you give us an overview of what Merkel’s 16 years in government have meant for the country?
I would love to, because when I talk to progressives around the world, many say they associate Merkel with showing kindness to refugees, with the legal minimum wage that Germany now has, or gay marriage. But the truth is, none of these things were really connected to her.
Let’s start with the minimum wage: 2002 was the first time a party proposed such a thing—that was our party, Die Linke. Then, the Social Democrats decided to support it, and then the unions decided to as well. It was only because Merkel was forced to form a government with the Social Democrats that the minimum wage was implemented, but in the end people ended up associating it with her.
It was the same with gay marriage, which she actually voted against. I remember the day because it was a huge thing. It was the only time that the Green Party, the SPD, and our party voted together. Even some Christian Democrats voted in favour of gay marriage, but she didn’t.
When it comes to migration, of course, she made a good humanitarian decision. We supported it when the people fleeing Syria came to our country by foot from Austria and Hungary and Merkel said, “open the borders, let the people in.” But afterwards, she and her government made a lot of moves to tighten the borders and close our doors. So this “friendly face” of Germany—which is a good thing, of course, as German history has also known a lot of ugly faces—didn’t really reflect her political views.
Looking back on her time in government, we should keep in mind that the number of billionaires has doubled since she took power, as has the number of children living in poverty. She is still the chancellor of a conservative, neoliberal party, so for the Left, we see the election as an opportunity to form a better government.
Recent polls have shown the CDU and the SPD are neck-and-neck, with the Greens close behind and the far-right AfD hovering at 12 and Die Linke at 7. That means there’s no possibility of a two-party government at the moment, and we could see a three-party coalition for the first time. What do you expect? What possible changes could happen after this election?
First of all, to be honest, I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: in Germany and elsewhere, elections are becoming more volatile—the moods of voters are changing much faster than they did in the past.
At the beginning of the campaign, everyone saw the CDU as the frontrunner for chancellor, and the Greens as the most likely alternative. But then a lot of things happened: we had a terrible flood, a lot of people died and many lost their homes. This provoked a renewed debate about the climate crisis. The CDU’s candidate, Armin Laschet, also made a stupid mistake by laughing in front of TV cameras during the president’s speech about the flood victims. It was just a short clip, but those kinds of images can do a lot of damage.
The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, was the media’s darling for a few weeks, but then the attacks started. After all, there is a lot of opposition to a Green chancellor in German society. Her opponents dug up some misattributions in her master's thesis, or some inaccuracies on her CV. These minor things dominated the campaign. It’s crazy—the big question in this election is how to deal with the social and ecological challenges of our time, but we’re discussing misquotations in politicians’ books rather than having a political debate.
Now the polls have shifted. The main beneficiary is finance minister Olaf Scholz, a centrist Social Democrat. After all of these debates, a lot of people began to see him as Merkel’s natural successor, rather than Armin Laschet. I think a lot of conservatives are planning to vote for Scholz because they don’t think Laschet can handle the job. It’s not only about political issues in that sense.
Let’s talk about the political issues. You have been a member of parliament for 12 years. What are the pressing issues and questions in German politics today?
I think the main question is finding a socially just way to deal with the ecological disaster—this has to be the main question. We have to connect ecology and social justice. I say this because the Green Party has received a lot of support thanks to the Fridays for Future movement, but the problem is that the party doesn’t think enough about the consequences for poor people and people in rural areas.
The Green Party is very strong in my district, Prenzlauer Berg, in the middle of Berlin. We have a lot of well-educated people with middle and high incomes. We have a good public transport system. So, for us, it’s very easy to say, “get rid of your old diesel car.” But if you go to a village in Saxony, a state in eastern Germany, there is no bus anymore. There’s no public transport. And if people hear the state wants to take away their old car, they of course get scared.
We shouldn’t be on the side of those who deny that there is there is a real problem, but at the same time, you need a party like ours that says we will take care of everyone. If you lose your job in a coal mine, we will offer you the same income and a better job opportunity.
Now, of course, the right-wing parties are trying to profit from the terrible images coming out of Kabul and make people afraid of refugees, like they did in 2015. Just last week, a CDU candidate in Berlin wrote a letter to his constituents calling on the city government to guarantee that no Afghan refugees would be housed in his district.
Similarly, you have people who want to make gender-inclusive language an election issue—and not only on the Right, I must confess. I think this is because there is no clear prospect for a broad centre-left coalition: abolishing gender-inclusive language won’t improve people’s lives, but if they don’t see any option of taxing the rich or helping the poor, they end up talking about things like language.
Foreign policy has also become more important because of the situation in Afghanistan. It still isn’t the main topic in the elections, but people are seeing that Afghanistan didn’t go well and are asking whether we should think about security differently. The war never had majority support in German society, but all the parties in the German parliament were in favour of it except for Die Linke. So now one question in the election is, what should the role of the German armed forces be in the world? There’s a debate about whether Germany should exercise more “global responsibility”. That usually means deploying soldiers, which my party opposes. Personally, I do think Germany should do more to solve global problems, but not with military means.
You mentioned the lack of prospects for forming a broad centre-left coalition after the next election. Could you say a little bit more about the parties that would theoretically be part of this coalition? The Greens, for instance, are often seen as the most ecological force in the German party landscape. Can their policies really tackle climate change? What about the role of the Social Democrats and Die Linke?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once said that she wouldn’t be in the same party as Joe Biden if she lived in a different country, and I think that’s true. Here, the Democrats and the Republicans are like very broad coalitions. In Germany, we have separated those coalitions into several parties. Most of the time I prefer our system, but since we still don’t have a clear campaign for a centre-left camp, I’m not so sure anymore.
The Social Democrats were founded as a workers’ party. Unlike the US, where the parties have switched sides over time, in Germany the CDU was traditionally always conservative and the SPD was always more or less progressive. But when Gerhard Schröder came to power together with the Greens in the late 1990s, things changed. It was the neoliberal era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and the party decided to move to the right—they attacked the social security system and passed policies in favour of the wealthy. As a result, the two major parties became more similar. This caused problems, because if voters don’t see a difference between the parties, they don’t have a reason to vote.
The Greens came out of the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s, and were the first ones who really thought about the environment. I think it’s totally correct to think of the Greens as the ecological party, even if I don’t agree with them on every point. They brought those questions into the political landscape. My criticism of the Greens, as I mentioned before, would be that you can only have a real green revolution if you think about the poor.
My party, Die Linke, is special. One part, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), came out of the former Communist Party in East Germany. It was part of some state governments, even in Berlin, but it went down in the polls as East-West issues declined in importance. It was thus fortunate that a split from the SPD led by former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine decided to merge with the PDS in 2007 to found Die Linke. We are a 6-to-10 percent party on the federal level. We are now in the state governments of Berlin and Bremen, and lead the government in the state of Thuringia. While the Greens’ trademark is ecology, our three main issues are social justice, foreign policy, and addressing the gap between East and West.
The German system might be more complicated, but I think for voters it’s better, because they get to vote either for the Greens, the Left, or the Social Democrats, and not for the whole package. Of course, in the end, if you vote for the Greens or Social Democrats, you could still wake up in a coalition with the other side of the political spectrum. That’s a problem.
With the conservatives losing so much support and the SPD on the rise, a lot of different coalitions suddenly seem possible. What are they and what kind of changes could they bring?
From my point of view, the worst outcome would be a so-called “Deutschland coalition” between the CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP. This would essentially be a continuation of the current “grand coalition”, but with a smaller Social Democratic component. That would be really bad. The Social Democrats say they don’t want to be in a coalition with the CDU anymore, and I believe them, but their last candidate, Martin Schulz, said the same thing before the last election. Who knows? Maybe it will happen again. It isn’t very likely, but it’s still an option.
The other possible “grand coalition” would be between the CDU/CSU and the Greens. The Greens would get a few concessions when it comes to ecological questions and transitioning German industry into an ecological direction, which is important. But I don’t believe in green capitalism. We need a stronger role for the state and more regulations. A market economy can’t solve these problems. Moreover, I don’t think this coalition would think about the interests of the poor at all. The Social Democrats have to deliver on social issues at least a little bit, but the Greens have the wealthiest electorate in society. They are not bad people, they do call for a wealth tax, but it’s not the most important thing on their agenda.
Right now the most likely outcome is a so-called “traffic light coalition”, because although the Social Democrats are ahead of the Greens, together they wouldn’t command a majority and will likely extend an invitation to the FDP. Personally, I’m in favour of a centre-left, “red-red-green” coalition, but you won’t find any statements from the top candidates of the Social Democrats or Greens supporting this option. Privately, they always say “yes, it’s totally clear that we are closer to each other politically”, but they are afraid of the CDU’s anticommunist attacks. A traffic light coalition would be better than the CDU, but it is far from what the country needs.
Some people argue that it’s dangerous for left-wing parties to enter government, because they may disappoint their base and lose influence. Yet many in civil society still prefer a government of the broad Left, even if it does have to make compromises. Which path do you think is riskier?
I’m totally convinced that elections matter. We could see that here in the United States. I’m very happy that Trump is no longer in office.
If we do well in Germany and were part of the government, a lot of things could happen. We couldn’t do everything we want, but we could do a lot. If you look at the Berlin state government, they launched a real class war against the real estate companies with the idea of a rent cap. The government fought for it for one year and was defeated at the Federal Constitutional Court, but it wouldn’t have happened without Die Linke in the government.