German elections: Change of government; sharp decline for Die Linke

German Federal Election night DIE LINKE rally, featuring Janine Wissler, Dietmar Bartsch, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (Wikimedia Commons)

This has never happened before. On 26th September, ‘Super Election Day’, Berliners voted by 56 percent in a referendum in favour of the expropriation of the large real estate companies. This shows that when people can make concrete political decisions, the interests of the working class prevail. However, this is not reflected in the results of the simultaneous elections to the Bundestag, the Berlin House of Representatives and the Mecklenburg-Western Pomeranian State Parliament.

Nevertheless, the result of the Bundestag elections heralds a new political period for Germany. The two big so-called “people’s parties”, the social democrat, SPD, and Christian CDU/CSU bloc, have massively declined now winning less than half the votes cast; in the 1970s it was over 90%.

It is almost certain that, for the first time, a coalition of three parliamentary groups will be formed (that is counting the CDU and CSU, which are two parties, as one parliamentary group). However, it is also certain that such a new development will not lead to the fundamental change in policy that opinion polls show forty percent of the population favour. The future government will continue to align its policies primarily with the interests of capital owners. No matter what coalition is formed, the neoliberal FDP will most likely be the most direct and radical representative of these capitalist interests in the government. The question of who should pay for the costs of the economic crisis and pandemic control will not be fundamentally answered in the interests of the employees and socially disadvantaged by either by a Scholz-Baerbock-Lindner (SPD-Green-FDP) coalition or by a Laschet-Baerbock-Lindner (CDU/CSU-Green-FDP) coalition as both will operate on the basis of capitalism. And, of course, the same applies to the mathematically possible, but very unlikely, continuation of the outgoing CDU/CSU and SPD grand coalition. All this makes it all the more urgent for trade unions and social movements to prepare for tough defensive struggles.

CDU/CSU in decline

Since 2013 the Union (the CDU/CSU bloc) has lost seven million votes. Now the SPD received well over eight million fewer votes compared to its 1998 peak. Putting their totals together, these two parts of the previous government coalition lost 1.7 million votes since 2017. 23.4 percent of eligible voters did not participate in the election. Thus the nearly 14,330,000 in the “party of non-voters” became bigger than all of the parties, plus in addition there were nearly 420,000 invalid or spoiled votes. Even if in this election the shifts have mainly taken place between the established pro-capitalist parties and both the far-right AfD and the left party DIE LINKE have lost votes, this election result will not slow down the process of political destabilisation of the Federal Republic but will continue it. The next federal government will be weaker than the Merkel governments of the last 16 years, and the ruling class of capital owners will have increasing difficulty formulating a unified policy.

The CDU’s decline is an expression of the struggles over the orientation of the party and the vacillation between adherence to the Merkel course, which is partly oriented towards ‘social partnership’, for which Laschet stands, and the urging of sections of the bourgeoisie for harsher attacks on the working class, for which Friedrich Merz stands. It was not Laschet’s personal slip-ups and weaknesses that were decisive for the CDU’s loss of votes, but they only made them a little bigger. These were already visible in opinion polls before the outbreak of the coronavirus. There was only a pandemic-related temporary recovery and high when, in the first phase of the infection, the federal government gave the impression that it would bring Germany through the pandemic reasonably unscathed. The crisis of the CDU/CSU is a direct expression of the crisis of the bourgeoisie to formulate a uniform policy. The result is tantamount to a “political meltdown”, as one commentator said, and is already opening up fierce disputes about the future course in the CDU.


Even if the SPD is jubilant, it cannot hide the fact that 25.7 percent is its third worst result in the history of the Federal Republic and that it has not even matched the top poll ratings briefly achieved in 2017 after Martin Schulz was nominated as the party’s chancellor candidate for the last federal election. In recent weeks and months, the SPD benefited from the fact that the CDU/CSU had opted for the “wrong” candidate and that, earlier this year, the bourgeois media and other institutions of the bourgeoisie ended the Greens’ soaring poll ratings with a campaign against their top candidate Annalena Baerbock. This is because they feared the expectations of the population, particularly regarding climate protection measures, that would have arisen with a Green-led federal government. Above all, the SPD did less ‘wrong’ in the election campaign than the others.

The increase in votes in the SPD, especially the fact that it was able to mobilize 1.25 million non-voters, is also an expression of the fact that social questions played an important role in these elections and that the Social Democrats have once again blinked to the left with their promises of a 12 euro minimum wage the introduction of a wealth tax, an “abolition” of the neoliberal Hartz welfare system, etc.

This was seen in the fact that the number of those who refute the idea that the SPD is a social-democratic policy has fallen by eleven percentage points, but still stands at 37 percent! This is not a comeback of the old workers’ party, but rather an expression of the lesser-evil alternative that most voters saw themselves in front of. In any case, there was no enthusiasm for a Chancellor Scholz.

Greens and FDP

The Free Democrats, FDP, and Greens go strengthened in negotiations on a coalition formation, even if the Greens had to bury their Chancellor ambitions. The fact that the radical free-market FDP was able to record significant increases in votes is mainly due to the fact that during the pandemic it had succeeded in gaining the image of parts of the population as a “reasonable” critic of the government’s covid policy and focused less on its capital-friendly positions than on supposedly “modern” positions in relation to digitization and other things. This has brought it an above-average number of votes, especially among young voters, amongst whom the SPD has continued to lose votes.


The far-right Alternative for Germany, AfD, has lost votes, but at the same time continued to consolidate itself as part of the party system. In the eastern federal states of Saxony and Thuringia, it became the strongest party and is still generally twice as strong in east Germany as in the west of the Republic. This will shift the balance of power within the party further in the direction of the right-wing extremist forces around Björn Höcke. Whether they draw the conclusion from this to settle accounts with the other part of the party and to take over the whole party remains to be seen. In any case, the AfD remains a serious threat to the working class, women, migrants, and minorities.

The so-called “other parties” have gained three percentage points to reach 8.6%. They include the Free Voters and the party “die Basis”, two forces that tend to be classified on the right, which won a higher number of votes. Due to a special election rule, the South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW), representing the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, can send a deputy to Berlin, so that for the first time eight parties will be represented in the Bundestag. The strengthening of the small parties is an indication that party-political fragmentation will be able to take on even stronger features in the future.

What government will form?

Now the debates, soundings, and negotiations on the formation of the next government coalition begin. One should not rule out any of the mathematically possible coalitions, but there is much to suggest that it will come down to a ‘traffic light’ coalition consisting of the SPD, Greens, and FDP, even if FDP leader Lindner would prefer a ‘Jamaica’ coalition with the CDU/CSU and the Greens. This is not only the result of the election result, which made the SPD the strongest force and the CDU/CSU the election’s main loser. Even if a ‘Jamaica’ coalition would certainly be closer to the capitalists’ wishes for anti-working class reforms, a government led by the main loser party and a battered Armin Laschet would probably be more unstable than a coalition led by Scholz. It is already clear that there will be forces in the Union that prefer the possibility of reorientating the party while it is in opposition to being in a Laschet-led government, but do not yet openly communicate this.

Olaf Scholz has already made his preference for a ‘traffic light’ clear. The decisive factor will be what the SPD and Greens offer the FDP so that it does not lose face and can argue that it has brought its own content into a government. It is also possible that a new government will move in the direction of the current Austrian government model of a conservative and Green coalition which gives members of the government extensive freedom in certain departments. It would be conceivable, for example, that the FDP would not stand in the way of a significant minimum wage increase, the SPD and Greens would renounce the wealth tax, the FDP would get an investment fund for digitization and the Greens would be able to implement their climate policy ideas to a large extent. Whether such a government will come about, and if so, how quickly, cannot be predicted at this stage. However, it cannot be ruled out that this will happen much faster than it now appears in view of the confusing and new situation.

The Left

The other loser of the election is DIE LINKE, the Left party – its result is widely described as a “debacle”. It lost nearly half of its nearly 4.3 million 2017 votes and fell below the five-percent hurdle.

It will now only enter the Bundestag with 30 members because it has won three direct constituency mandates in Berlin and Leipzig. This enabled DIE LINKE to benefit from the rule under which a party under the 5% bar can still get Bundestag members according to their total national percentage vote if they win three or more constituency seats. However, DIE LINKE will probably lose some parliamentary group rights.

Thus, while the super meltdown of being ousted from the Bundestag failed to materialise, the result is a bitter setback that will also have a temporary impact on the self-confidence of some left-wing activists. In addition, it is expected that a number of its more left-wing and movement-oriented MPs will not return to the Bundestag and thus the political orientation of DIE LINKE’s parliamentary group may shift to the right.

LINKE leaders, Dietmar Bartsch and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, spoke immediately after the election about mistakes were made and the need for a reappraisal. But they do not say the obvious: the strategy of pandering to the SPD and the Greens did not work. On the contrary: as the Sol (CWI Germany) has warned in recent weeks and months, there is much to suggest that many former LINKE voters preferred to make their cross at the original rather than the copy, in order to ensure that the CDU/CSU does not become the strongest force. The propaganda of the LINKE leadership, first of all, to argue that a vote for DIE LINKE was the best guarantor for voting out the CDU/CSU and then, when that obviously no longer worked, to say that only by voting LINKE could one prevent FDP participation in government, went down like a lead balloon. What has been lost are its own positions, its own profile, and the credibility that the party is primarily concerned with enforcing these own positions. That a left-wing party does not gain strength in times of great systemic crises, that it achieves fewer votes than the FDP among workers and cannot mobilise the youth and that it repeatedly fails to reach non-voters … is an admission of bankruptcy.

Reducing the blame for the losses to internal disputes, especially over Sahra Wagenknecht, falls short. Undoubtedly, a party at loggerheads is less likely to be elected. But it is not only since the debates about Wagenknecht’s positions that DIE LINKE has been losing ground. The fundamental problems are that it has lost its credibility via its participation in federal state and city governments with the SPD and the Greens; it has not stood out from the federal government in the covid crisis and is considered by many to be the left, and thus interchangeable, part of the political ‘establishment’. Above all, this image blocks the way to the millions of non-voters, who apparently no longer feel addressed by any of the existing parties.

The effect of Wagenknecht’s election as DIE LINKE’s top candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia was apparently not that it mobilised votes for the party but that it certainly demobilised left-wing and anti-racist activists, and also parts of the party membership, if not in the vote, then certainly in the mobilisation during the election campaign.

The fact that there is another way is shown, among other things, by DIE LINKE in the northern part of Berlin-Neukölln, which has built itself up over the years as an anti-capitalist and movement-oriented force in the district. There DIE LINKE’s election campaign, which Sol members helped shape, was able to achieve significant gains in votes in the election to the city’s House of Representatives at a time when the party’s overall vote in the city fell.

DIE LINKE should ruthlessly come to terms with this electoral disaster. A drastic change is required for the party’s future. DIE LINKE should focus above all on what a left party is needed for: to support and bring together trade union struggles and social movements, arguing for anti-capitalist and socialist perspectives and solutions. Sol members will continue to work for this in the party. We call on all those who are disappointed by this election result to become even more active now – in trade unions and social movements in order to counter the policies of the coming government and, with Sol, also in the LINKE in order to advocate a socialist change of course there.

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September 2021