Can the German Left Save Itself?

Kevin Kühnert, head of the Jusos youth organization, which has tried to drag Germany’s Social Democrats to the left. “We need a people’s party in the opposition to stand up to the AfD,” he said. Credit Patrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Kevin Kühnert, head of the Jusos youth organization, which has tried to drag Germany’s Social Democrats to the left. “We need a people’s party in the opposition to stand up to the AfD,” he said. Credit Patrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The German left is in disastrous shape.

At worst, in the case of the Social Democrats, its support is eroding. At best, as in the case of the Greens and the Left Party, it is stagnating. Germany has no figures to excite left-wing voters as Bernie Sanders has done in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn has done in Britain. There is no growing anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist movement around which to anchor leftist policy.

This is especially dangerous right now, as German politics are in turmoil. Five months ago, a general election delivered disappointing results for both major parties, and no majority. Today, there is still no government as coalition talks crawl on. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are negotiating yet another “grand coalition” government with the Social Democrats — a situation about which very few in Germany are enthusiastic.

Ms. Merkel has always been more of a manager than a visionary. But her often opportunistic brand of politics has become less and less popular. Her party had its worst showing since 1949 in the last election. Voters have called time on centrism.

Political malaise of this kind could be an opportunity for left-wing groups promising social and economic change. But it’s not working that way. Instead, in this vacuum, the far-right party Alternative for Germany, widely known by its German initials as AfD, has managed to combine its fierce anti-immigrant stance with a new rhetorical and policy focus on social welfare — calling for higher wages, safer pensions and extended unemployment benefits. These are the kinds of issues that should be offered by the left, untainted by the AfD’s putrid nationalism.

A poll released this week found that 16 percent of German voters would choose the AfD in elections, half a percentage point more than would pick the Social Democrats. It’s the first time the far-right party has done better than the center-left Social Democrats, which helped build the postwar German state. The AfD draws some support from high-earning members of the elite, including a number of academics. But its base is the working class, the unemployed and, more and more, trade union members — just the kinds of voters a left-wing agenda should appeal to.

Blame for the Social Democrats’ decay lies largely at the party’s own feet. After years as the weaker partner in a coalition government, the party has seen its identity all but subsumed in that of Ms. Merkel and her Christian Democrats. Immediately after the federal election in September, the Social Democratic leadership decided to take on the role of primary opposition in Parliament rather than ally with the Christian Democrats. But when negotiations for other possible coalitions fell apart, the Social Democrats once again agreed to consider joining Ms. Merkel’s party in governing.

he base isn’t happy. The party’s youth organization, known as the Jusos, has tried to drag the Social Democrats to the left, much as young activists have in the British Labour Party. “We need a people’s party in the opposition to stand up to the AfD,” said Kevin Kühnert, head of the Jusos. Right after the election, the party started a social media campaign with the hashtag #SPDerneuern (#ReinventSPD), which attracted many new members. Even the party’s leader at the time announced “an end to the spirit of neoliberalism” at the party congress at the end of January.

But hashtags and grandiose promises aside, the Social Democrats offer no shift to the left, which is what they would need to regain some support. Instead, they are planning to be Ms. Merkel’s junior partners, so they will not push for reforms to Germany’s unfair health insurance system and they will back the government’s taking a tougher stance against immigration. This coalition is expected to, among other plans, postpone climate goals, hire more police officers and strengthen the state surveillance system.

The party’s 464,000 members will now vote on whether it should participate in this coalition. But no matter what the base decides, the party has proved itself weak on ideas and indecisive in realpolitik. A reinvention is not in sight. The Social Democrats will continue to wither into irrelevance unless room is made for the ideas and leadership of leftists like the Jusos leader Mr. Kühnert.

The other two parties of the left, the Greens and the Left Party, appear equally devoid of optimism and direction. At the beginning of the year, Sahra Wagenknecht, the parliamentary leader of the Left, called for a “left movement” in which her own party, the Social Democrats and the Greens came together. This sounds like a good idea, a way to unify Germany’s fragmented progressives into a strong collective. Unfortunately, Ms. Wagenknecht is one of the impediments.

In recent years, she has made remarks on immigration (“Not all the impoverished and poor of the world can come to us”) and on feminism (“I get hit on, too, but I’m able to set boundaries and don’t have to weep on Twitter”) that have alienated potential allies on the left. And a divisive leader is not the party’s only problem. The Left Party has historic links to the East German regime, which continues to scare off voters. Some members of the Parliament, like Diether Dehm, are reported to have ties to anti-Semitic groups. The party’s soft line on Russia has also drawn censure. The result is that the party is — despite its promising left-wing program — “unwählbar” (unelectable) for many leftists.

The Greens, for their part, hardly present a better option. Last month, the party elected new leaders, choosing for the first time since its founding in the 1980s “realos” — a nickname for centrist “realistic” politicians. Meanwhile, the left-wing core of the Greens, known as “fundis” for their commitment to the party’s fundamentals, continues to lose power. In the months after the election, the Greens entered into coalition talks with Ms. Merkel’s party and the radically free-market Free Democratic Party. Those talks foundered, but that the Greens even contemplated the idea was seen as the end of an era. And this centrist drift hasn’t even led to electoral success; in September’s election, the party came in sixth place.

As Germany’s left-wing parties fail in one way or another, a soaring number of young people are unhappy with politics. According to a recent survey, about 86 percent of Germans under 30 years do not feel represented in the current political system.

The main task for the German parliamentary left now will be to offer an alternative for both disaffected young urbanites and the alienated working class. The Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens all have politicians in their ranks who stand for progressive change. But these figures can come into power only with increased pressure from the base.

There is no need — or reasonable prospect — of a merging of these three parties. And yet they would be well advised to agree on three points: opposition to nationalism, to further deregulation of the economy and to the gutting of social services. With this groundwork, the first red-red-green coalition in German history could, eventually, move from a seeming impossibility into a realistic hope.

Lukas Hermsmeier is a journalist.

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