Germany: Government disunited, and debates within the Left Party

Germany is seeing its politically most unstable period since unification of East and West in 1990 and also the beginning of the end of the “Merkel era”.

After the September 2017 general election it took six months to form a new government – the longest period ever in post-war German history. The then re-formed “grand coalition” of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) and the social democratic SPD really is the coalition of the election’s losers and far from “grand” as it only represents 53.5 percent of the votes and only 40.7 percent of the electorate. After only a few months in office this coalition is currently on the brink of collapse – and this most significantly because of a conflict between CDU and CSU, the two traditional conservative parties.

At the same time the Left Party (DIE LINKE) is being shaken by internal conflicts around its migration policy and the future organisational and electoral strategy for the party. A party congress in early June saw sharp debates between the different camps but also a certain shift to the left in regard to the congress’s resolutions and election of a new leadership.

The new factor in Germany’s political landscape is the right-populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) which is now the strongest opposition party in the Bundestag (German parliament) and which presently stands at around 14 percent in national opinion polls as well being the strongest party in regional polls in some of the eastern German federal states. The AfD’s success is mainly based on the crisis of confidence in the established political parties and institutions coupled with a growing feeling of alienation amongst increasing sections in society. This, combined with the distrust in the EU and euro plus the coming of a growing number of refugees to Germany in 2015 and since then, has given the AfD’s populism fertile ground.

At the same time it has to be said that this was not unpreventable. Had the trade union leaderships given a combative lead and had the Left Party not acted in too many instances like the left-wing of the establishment (especially joining federal state governments in coalition with the SPD and the Greens which basically continued the previous politics) the growth of the right wing could have been limited. Because of this last September’s election, while seeing the Left Party’s vote grow in western Germany, also saw it fall in many parts of the east, including east Berlin, while the AfD sharply grew in these areas.

The AfD is a right-wing populist party with an openness to the far right and with a fascistic wing which uses social demagogy and blatant racist propaganda. Its growth has pushed the whole political discourse in the country to the right. The media play a disgraceful role in this putting the question of refugees, alleged crimes by immigrants, the thread of Islamists etc. on top of the agenda while often ignoring social issues and social protests. For example on June 20 4,000 hospital workers took to the streets in a first national mobilisation directly confronting the health minister Jens Spahn. This was a highly significant event because Spahn, a right wing critic of Merkel with links to people around Trump, had to announce concessions to the workers. But this did not make it into the main news programme in the state television which instead dealt at great length with the current conflict around migration issues.

Government conflicts

In recent weeks conflict has broken out sharply between chancellor Merkel (CDU) and minister for the interior Horst Seehofer (CSU). Seehofer is demanding unilateral action by Germany to refuse entry and turn back refugees at the German border who have already applied for asylum in another EU country, while Merkel insists on an agreement on EU level or through bilateral treaties with other countries. So while this appears as a conflict on the question if refugees should be let into the country it is in reality a conflict around the question what is the best way to keep them out.

One background to that conflict is the upcoming state election in Bavaria this October. The CSU is a Bavarian based party which, since it was founded in 1946, played a national role as a sister party of the CDU and because of its dominant position in Bavaria. It has traditionally been the most right wing and conservative party in Germany in the Bundestag. Its historical leader, Franz-Josef Strauss, once said that there must never be a democratically legitimated party to the right of the CSU. Since 1946 only once, in 1950, has the CSU not been the biggest Bavarian party and it has been in, and generally led, every state government apart from 1954 to 1957. The CSU has won an absolutely majority in every election there since 1966 with the sole exception of 2008.

Now this privileged position is now threatened with the rise of the AfD and the CSU is likely to lose its overall majority in the Bavarian state parliament. In a desperate attempt to avoid this the CSU presents itself as more independent and more to the right from the CDU. This tactic will however most likely not work as voters usually prefer the original to the copy – and a shift to the right in the CSU policy works like a confirmation of the AfD’s position and this will most likely not significantly weaken them in October.

EU policy

But it’s also not all just electorally motivated. Behind the conflict also lies a deeper difference on the question of Europe and the EU which does not only exist between the CDU and the CSU but also inside the CDU. Already at the height of the Euro crisis there was a significant opposition in the ranks of CDU und CSU against the EU policy of chancellor Merkel. This represents basically a conflict between different sections of the German bourgeoisie. The German economy is highly export-based and therefore the main and dominant sections of the capitalist class defend the EU and free trade as a lever to make profits. But another section which is more based on the domestic market fears that the EU could become a burden for the German state budget and economy. This was the starting point of the Alternative for Germany which began as a right-populist anti-EU and anti-Euro party, moved further to the right turning into a racist and nationalist party which puts anti-immigrant and islamophobic propaganda to the fore of its politics.

The current conflict is basically about the question whether Germany should seek agreement with other EU states about how to keep migrants out of the country and the EU altogether or whether the country should take unilateral measures. Interior secretary Horst Seehofer (CSU) has called the conflict a “mouse which has been turned into an elephant” – thereby ignoring that he himself has created this elephant in order to score points both for himself and his party.

It seems contradictory that the country is fallen into political crisis at a time of economic growth and budget surplus. But this only is a reflection of the deep structural crisis of world capitalism and the global instabilities which are having an effect on the consciousness of all classes and layers in Germany. But it is also a warning what will happen once the economy turns back into stagnation or even slump. Then a far reaching breakup of the party landscape is possible and even likely.

CDU-CSU break-up?

There is already talk about a possible break-up of the CDU-CSU alliance and the possibility of the CSU turning itself from a regional party into a nation-wide one. This could either lead to early elections or to the CSU leaving the government and the Green Party joining it to keep a majority for Merkel and try to avoid early elections. Some may hope that such a development could mean that the CSU takes away support for the AfD – and this might be a possibility. But it would probably not push the AfD under the five percent threshold to enter the Bundestag and in consequence would mean a further sharp shift to the right of the CSU adopting more and more right populist methods. Public discourse would further shift to the right – at a time when the question of migration and Islam is already dominating media and public opinion. There has been a strengthening of the right but this is not the only side of the coin.

How much the situation has changed can be seen in regard to debates over the German national football team. While right-wing AfD politicians publicly say they do not support the team because of its ethnic diversity and exploiting the “scandal” about two players of Turkish origin meeting up with the Turkish president Erdogan recently. These two players have been booed by German fans in the recent matches. At the same time sociologists report about a layer of football fans not carrying the German national flag this time because they don’t want to be associated with the AfD and nationalism.


So there is polarisation in society but currently it finds more of an expression on the right. But there are also some important trade union and social movements even if there are no generalised class struggles which could put a stamp on society and dominate public debate and opinion. Starting with strikes in the Charité hospital in Berlin for more staff a few years ago (in which SAV members played a central role) a nation-wide movement of hospital workers has developed demanding more staff and better working conditions. This led to strikes in a number of hospitals and a first national hospital worker demonstration on June, 20th in Düsseldorf with 4,000 participating and confronting the hated health minister Jens Spahn on a rally. A new layer of activists is developing in the hospitals and the public sector union ver.di with attempts to coordinate activists from below. One initiative is a new paper “from health workers for health workers” called “Heartbeat” which is published by hospital worker activists, amongst them members of SAV (CWI in Germany)

Berlin saw the biggest tenants’ demonstration for decades with over 20,000 marching against the city’s rising rents and gentrification in April. Now a campaign for a referendum on the nationalisation of one of the biggest building companies has begun which finds a good echo and plans are discussed for a first national demonstration against rising rents and the bad situation on the housing market.

In May 80,000 took to the streets against a AfD march in Berlin which only attracted 5,000. This reflects that the AfD’s strength is largely electorally and not based on an active layer. It also confirms our analysis that the AfD while racist and with fascist elements, is not a fascist party or a party which is clearly on its way to develop into a fascist party – not the least because it is missing a militant wing which tries to develop terror against the left and migrants.

But at the same time most trade union leaders have not sought to mobilise the movement in struggle, for example not seizing the opportunity this year to bring together the big warning strikes in both the metal industry and public sector and turn this into a general movement for the redistribution of wealth from the top of society to the working class.

Class alternative needed

This situation cries out for a combative class alternative. The tragedy is that the Left Party is not seizing the opportunities and does not stand the test of time but is itself in a situation of growing internal conflicts, despite the fact that it has won thousands of new members in the recent period who are looking for a way to fight the right-populists and international “Trumpism” and who are often active in housing or health campaigns.

The party consists of many different wings and currents. In the past the main dividing line was between those who were looking for government participation in coalitions with the pro-capitalist SPD and Greens at (almost) all costs (including participating in social cuts, privatisations etc. in such coalition on federal state level) and the more left reformist and the revolutionary forces in the party who are either in principled opposition against such coalitionism or very critical of it.

But since the so called “refugee crisis” in 2015 things in the party are much more in flux. The traditional figurehead of the left wing of the party has been Sahra Wagenknecht who is one of the two chairpersons of the parliamentary faction of the party. She formed an unprincipled alliance with parts of the right wing represented by the faction’s other chairperson Dietmar Bartsch. In the party itself other forces are in the majority and the party chairpersons, Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping, represent other camps.

Wagenknecht is married to the former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine who had left the SPD more than ten years ago and helped forming the Left Party. The two have moved into a more nationalistic position – arguing for an end of the euro currency but also demanding border regulations and repeating the infamous phrase that “Germany cannot take all refugees”. Wagenknecht made some statements which in their rhetoric and content were extremely harmful: she spoke of asylum seekers as “guests” and implicitly demanded the deportation of such refugees who were committing criminal offences, she also spoke of a connection between terror attacks and migration and generally played a role in reinforcing the ethnic characterisation of political debates. Not everything she says is wrong. She says that the Left Party must find a way to regain support it has lost and win more of the former SPD voters but then puts the blame for its losses on just on the party’s migration policy and its position to stand for open borders. She says this call is a neoliberal demand as only the capitalists stand for open borders in order to bring down wages and conditions.

Open borders

This is a complicated debate. The first problem is that Wagenknecht and her supporters made the issue of migration the number one issue inside the party instead of putting all the weight into trying to put the social questions to the fore again. Secondly she gives a reactionary answer to the question of migration and the debate around open borders – as she leaves an internationalist and class position once she talks of “them” and “us” meaning migrants and the population in Germany. This reinforces divisions and in the end can only help the ruling class.

But the debate around the demand for open borders is more complicated. We in SAV don’t use this slogan. First because it is in reality not a transitional demand but a utopian position as it is impossible to have real open borders for all people under a capitalist system. This is comparable to use a slogan for the end of wage labour or the abolition of money. Such demands do not have a strong mobilising effect as working class people understand that they cannot be won under the present conditions but they are also not a bridge to the idea of socialist change because they would even not be implemented in a first period after workers would have taken power.

Secondly there are many worries amongst working class people about the effects of migration. These have to be taken seriously – not by giving in to anti-migrant positions but by using a language and formulations which can find the ears of workers with such worries and prejudice against immigrants. But: not using the slogan for open borders does not mean to stand for border regulations or restrictions to migration. We put forward a set of demands to strengthen the rights for immigrants, above all the right to stay for all who are in the country, a widening of the asylum legislation, no to all deportations, legal refuge ways etc. alongside calls for improved housing, healthcare, education for all and to defend all workers’ wages and conditions.

Conflicts inside the Left Party

But in the present debate within the Left Party we defend the present migration policy against the attempts of Sahra Wagenknecht and others to replace it with a policy which openly stands for restrictions, acceptance of deportations etc.

The second big issue is the attempt of Wagenknecht and Lafontaine to form a new “movement” outside the Left Party together with politicians from the SPD and Greens and other celebrities to call for a policy change. This “rallying movement” is rightly seen as a competitive project against the party which has the aim of either forming a new party in the future which would stand to the right of the Left Party or putting prominent non-party members onto the Left Party’s election lists, thereby trying to move the party’s parliamentary groups further to the right.

This debate is shaking the party and has led to a realignment of cooperation and alliances of different forces in the party – often unfortunately not based on principled positions but as part of a power struggle. The conflict broke out at the party congress where the delegates for the first time ever used their right to raise questions after a speech of one of the prominent leader to criticise her politics. This happened after Sahra Wagenknecht’s report of the Left Party’s work in the Bundestag which remarkably only received applause by probably less than half of the delegates. Three delegates, including a member of SAV, raised criticism and questions, something which led to a change in the agenda pushed through by a narrow vote which then led to a one hour debate on the issues where 100 delegates put down their names to speak.

The congress made clear that, while a majority of delegates did not support Wagenknecht, the issues were not resolved. This is despite a resolution being adopted which quite clearly reinforces the positions of the party on migration. But because the resolution just calls for open borders and not explicitly for open borders “for all” Wagenknecht and her supporters now try to interpret this in their way.

Overall however the party congress rather meant a certain shift to the left in the sense that the adopted main resolution contains a lot of important demands and describes the Left Party as a party of the movements, rejecting the idea that the party is a substitute for mass mobilisation. An addendum of the Anticapitalist Left ( AKL – the left current in which SAV members are active) calling for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy was accepted by a majority as was a resolution which demands that party leaders act on the basis of the agreed positions of the party.

The elections to the national committee of the party saw no major changes in the balance of forces but probably a certain slight shift to the left. SAV member Lucy Redler got re-elected onto the body in the first round of the elections of the female candidates for the committee (the chairpersons and executive members are elected separately) with over 51 percent of the vote and the second best vote. Other members of the Anticapitalist Left were also elected and Sebastian Rave, the second candidate who is a member of SAV, only narrowly missed being elected by seven votes.

Overall members of SAV and AKL had a good and important impact on the congress with almost 100 copies of SAV’s paper Solidarity being sold.

SAV has now published a statement with seven proposals for the party which include:

1.concentration on the implementation of the agreed campaign on the issues of the health sector and housing
2.a defence of the party’s positions on migration, solidarity with refugees and stepping up the campaign work against militarisation and the thread of war
3.organise a through and democratic debate on the question of the party’s migration policy end to the public conflicts and acceptance of party positions by the leaders
5.the preparation of a combative anti EU election campaign for the forthcoming European elections in 2019
6.put government participation into question – especially given the upcoming elections in different federal states next year where the continuation of government coalitions or new coalitions are posed
7.a debate on the political content of Wagenknecht’s proposal for a new movement and no opening for the party’s election lists to candidates who do not fully support the election manifestos of the party

If the party acts along these lines it could be possible to strengthen DIE LINKE both electorally and, more importantly, in terms of members and impact on social struggles and movements. The SPD has remained weak since its bad election result last September, polls generally show a continuing decline in its support, something which gives an opportunity for the Left Party. While the Left Party has slightly risen in recent polls, it has not been able to record significant gains, although in Berlin it is now often the largest party in the polls. In fact the party’s future is threatened by both the policy of coalitionism advocated by the party’s right wing and the attempt by Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters to change its principled position in migration policy and create a competing new “progressive” movement.

SAV members will step up their activities to help defending DIE LINKE as a broad socialist project while at the same time fighting for a clear socialist programme, a combative policy by the party and a majority for the principled left-wing and anti-capitalist forces inside.


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