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Stefan Liebich on the ups and downs of Die Linke’s experiences in government since the 1990s



Stefan Liebich,

Die Linke‘s senators in the new centre-left coalition governing Berlin: Klaus Lederer, Katja Kipping, and Prof. Dr. Lena Kreck. Photo: picture alliance / Fotostand | Fotostand / Reuhl

If a well-meaning observer wanted to give a positive assessment of the current influence of Germany’s democratic socialist party, Die Linke, they would write that it co-governs in a quarter of all federal states, including, following a majority vote by the membership, in the capital Berlin, and that the party even counts among its ranks the acting president of the Bundesrat (the legislative body representing the 16 federal states), Minister-President of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow.

Stefan Liebich was a member of the Berlin House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009 and a member of the German Bundestag from 2009 to 2021. Starting in January 2022, he will be a Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translation by Loren Balhorn.

However, the decision in Berlin in particular shows that there is also another way of looking at things. For it is also true that Die Linke is not represented at all in six out of the 16 state parliaments, and that government participation is quite controversial within the party itself. In the Berlin members’ referendum, for example, relevant sections of the state chapter campaigned enthusiastically for a rejection of the coalition agreement because, in their view, the results were not enough to govern the state successfully.

To Govern or Not to Govern?

The debate about governing has accompanied Die Linke and one of its predecessor parties, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), from the very beginning. (For the other predecessor party, the WASG, the question practically never arose. However, its best-known member, Oskar Lafontaine, was himself part of governments at the state and federal level as a Social Democrat).

Throughout their history, left-wing parties have repeatedly discussed the question of whether socialists should govern under capitalism at all, or whether this would not make them more like “doctors at the sick-bed” of a patient whom one would actually like to see expire quickly. Countless speeches have been given on this topic and entire books have been written. Probably the most famous controversy was the so-called “revisionism debate” in the early Social Democratic Party (SPD), in which Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and a young Rosa Luxemburg crossed intellectual swords at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. But similar debates were also held by the Communist Party in the early 1920s and the Green Party in the 1980s.

Left-wing debates about participating in government will probably never end — nor should they. If Die Linke decided not to participate in state or federal government, it would inevitably lose the vast majority of its voters who expect exactly that from it. It would become a sect that renounces possible influence in favour of “pure doctrine”.

If one decided the other way round — i.e., if one simply seized every opportunity to appoint ministers, irrespective of substance, conditions, and balance of forces — it would also make itself superfluous. Governing is not a value in itself. Neither is opposition.

“Everybody wants to govern, we want to change things” — this was the PDS’s main electoral slogan in the 1990s. It expresses the fact that the Left should be about making a real difference, not just accumulating positions. The idea that the successor organization to the East German ruling party, of all things, would be involved in governments seemed bold to many people after the collapse of actually existing socialism. But then it happened quite quickly.

The PDS and Die Linke in Government

The Social Democrat Reinhard Höppner dared to break the taboo in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt as early as 1994, after the conservative-liberal state government between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats (FDP) lost its majority. Since the SPD and the Greens also lacked a majority, Höppner arranged with the PDS for their deputies to abstain from voting, which enabled him to be elected minister-president with a relative majority. The toleration of a minority government, which was quickly named the “Magdeburg Model” after the state capital, expanded the previous forms of government cooperation in the Federal Republic. The alliance lasted two legislative periods until the centre-left parties lost their majority again.

The next step was then the first “real” government participation by the PDS, when a “red-red” coalition between SPD and PDS was formed in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in November 1998. This was the first time that the Party of Democratic Socialism appointed three ministers. The coalition lasted until 2006. Several weeks ago, Die Linke again returned to government in the north-eastern state.

Only three years after forming a government in the north, the PDS also governed for the first time on the western side of the Wall — in Berlin, of all places, the city that was divided by this structure for 28 years. At that time, I myself was the state chairman of the PDS, later also chairman of the parliamentary group in the House of Representatives (the state parliament), and negotiated with the Social Democrats Klaus Wowereit, who was already the governing mayor, the SPD state chairman Peter Strieder, and the SPD parliamentary group leader Michael Müller.

On the PDS side, our top candidate, probably the most popular PDS politician, Gregor Gysi, and our parliamentary party leader Harald Wolf were also involved in the negotiations. For days and nights we discussed the formation of a joint government in the only federal state that had been divided between East and West during the Cold War. After the successful conclusion of the talks, ministers of the PDS, later Die Linke, governed for the first time in the former West as well. The government lasted for ten years. However, because Die Linke lost half of its support during this time, the coalition no longer had a majority and was replaced by an SPD/CDU government. But Die Linke returned to the government as early as 2016, which this time also included the Greens. The “red-green-red” coalition can now, after the adoption of the new coalition agreement, govern the city for another five years.

In the neighbouring state of Brandenburg, Minister-President Matthias Platzeck (SPD) also formed a “red-red” state government in November 2009, which his successor Dietmar Woidke continued until 2019. For the first time, our party was part of a government coalition for three consecutive election periods.

The real breakthrough came in December 2014 in Thuringia with the election of long-time opposition leader Bodo Ramelow as minister-president of a “red-red-green” state government. Apart from a small interruption — when an FDP politician who was elected with the support of the radical right-wing AfD presided over the state for a few weeks, but then had to resign facing a broad wave of protests — Ramelow has governed the state until today. On 1 November 2021, as mentioned at the outset, he was elected president of the Bundesrat, the state chamber of the Federal Republic, for one year as part of a rotation system.

In the meantime, Die Linke is even part of a government on the territory of the “old” Federal Republic, the ten West German federal states. In the northern German city-state of Bremen, the SPD, Greens, and Die Linke agreed on a coalition under the leadership of Mayor Andreas Bovenschulte (SPD) in 2019. And although this remains Die Linke’s only participation in government in West Germany so far, it is worth mentioning that in the summer of 2010, SPD politician Hannelore Kraft was elected minister-president in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, despite the SPD and Greens not having a majority. Like a decade-and-a-half earlier in Magdeburg, Die Linke’s members of parliament abstained from voting for the minister-president, thus making Kraft’s election possible.

Success or Failure?

The fact that Die Linke has been involved in various state governments can be interpreted as a success — whether the respective concrete government policies were successful from the Left’s point of view is another matter. After all, Die Linke’s participation in government has always been controversial within its own ranks, and so a more-or-less objective assessment of the actual work of the ministers (and the parliamentary groups and state chapters that support them) is hardly possible. While some pointed to every bad compromise, every mistake, and every electoral defeat – of which there were many — as evidence that it would have been better to stay in opposition, others — among whom I was one — cited long lists of real improvements and things we stopped from getting worse.

In this way, the following narrative emerged in our party: the PDS was on the upswing in the 1990s. The toleration in Saxony-Anhalt and government participation in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were seen as evidence of this. The participation in government in Berlin then marked the “turning point”: the toppling of the CDU-led Senate in Berlin and the triumph of the PDS in East Berlin in 2001 were celebrated. But then came the crash: the resignation of Gregor Gysi, the unpopular policy of budget consolidation in a completely over-indebted city, and finally, only one year after the Berlin election success, the temporary ejection of the PDS from the Bundestag in 2002, when its 4 percent was not enough to re-enter parliament and it only remained present at all via two direct mandates from Berlin.

The dramatic faction fights that followed, in which the question of governing was always at stake, threatened to destroy the party. Today, most of those who were there at the time remember the sale of a housing association in Berlin rather than, say, the introduction of popular referendums, and a new police law in Brandenburg rather than the nationalization of lakes by the state government. In other words, all too often the painful compromises that had to be made were weighted more heavily than the reforms that could be achieved.

We Can Do It Better

It was only with the prospect of a new, truly all-German party, which began to form in 2005 from the PDS and the left-wing split from the SPD, the WASG, that renewed hope for a democratic socialist party establishing itself alongside the SPD and the Greens emerged. The upsurge was personified above all by the former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine and the returning Gregor Gysi. The successes in the 2009 Bundestag elections, where Die Linke achieved its best result to date with 11.9 percent, and the election of the first left-wing minister-president confirmed the upswing. Even the previously much-criticized Berlin chapter of Die Linke suddenly received support from all wings of the party for its class struggle against the Berlin real estate industry.

However, the debate around government participation has shifted in the meantime. Today, the question of whether Die Linke should participate in governments is less about fundamental decisions than about concrete substance. The questions today are rather: will it really succeed in socializing major real estate companies? Will new teachers really be hired? Will public transport be expanded? The answers still differ, and the debate is no less controversial. But in a left-wing, democratic socialist party, for which governing is not an end in itself, this has to be the case.

However, after the recent election defeat, the debate about Die Linke’s participation in government at the federal level has become a distant prospect. This should not be obscured by the participation in government in the federal states. Moreover, whether this will be possible at some point will not be decided by the state chapters, but in the parliamentary group in the German Bundestag and in party headquarters. For those who are not represented by the current federal government, it is to be hoped that Die Linke will not go into hiding now, but will sort itself out and make another go at it. Because one thing is certain: we can do it better!