Germany’s left braced for election postmortem before polls even open
Voters aware left has neither will nor mass to do deal and oust Angela Merkel
Parliamentary group leader of left-wing party Die Linke and top candidate for the upcoming general elections, Sahra Wagenknecht, speaks in Berlin district of Lichtenberg. Photograph: Clemens Bilan
If you believe the polls, Sunday’s federal election will be the latest in a long line of missed opportunities for Germany’s left.
Just 10 per cent of the electorate, according to a poll on Wednesday, can envision a three-way centre-left coalition between the ailing Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the post-communist Left Party.
The other 90 per cent of voters have already realised that Germany’s left has neither the will nor the numbers to do a deal and oust chancellor Angela Merkel.
While the SPD is headed for the worst result in its 150-year history, somewhere about 20 per cent, polls have the Greens and Left Party stuck on the wrong side of 10 per cent.
Long before polls open, let alone close, Germany’s left is already braced for the postmortem of missed election opportunities.
For the Greens, the opportunity came at half past two in the morning in October 2013, when Merkel, leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), held exploratory talks with the Greens. When they rebuffed her approach, she told them: “There are times in history when a window or door opens, and then it closes. Today I believe that you missed a chance of an open window.”
Merkel got her revenge in the last four years: using her four-fifths grand coalition majority to politically squeeze the Greens after purloining their policies. In 2011, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, she revived a Green plan to abolish nuclear energy within the decade. In this term Merkel backed a minimum wage and, in the second-to-last parliamentary sitting last June, allowed a free vote on marriage equality.
On the campaign, Green hopes of capitalising on fury over car emission fraud was dulled by Merkel’s promise of assistance for motorists. Battling their image of vegan, yuppie re-educationalists, the Greens have gone back to their roots: as the last hope for climate protection in the Trump era.
“We have to have the courage to finally shape this country – green,” said Green co-leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a 51-year-old eastern German. “If you want a stop sign for climate change, then you vote Green.”
The party already rules in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, Green leaders point out, and if a Berlin coalition doesn’t offer similar policy influence – on climate change, social justice, integration and animal welfare – the Greens have vowed to go into opposition, for the fourth time in succession, “with our heads held high”.
Merkel’s only likely offer to the Greens after Sunday would be even less appealing than 2013: an untested three-way alliance with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
“The Green leaders, from the pragmatic end of the party, would be up for it,” suggests Gero Neugebauer, a Berlin political scientist. “But they know it would cause a split with the party’s fundamentalist grassroots.”
Like the Greens, Germany’s Left Party is a house divided. It emerged a decade ago in a union between the successors to East Germany’s ruling communists and SPD supporters who left in protest at radical economic and social reform.
Outside a shopping centre in eastern Berlin, a crowd has gathered at the Left Party stand to slurp caipirinhas “in solidarity with a socialist Cuba”. On a low stage is Sahra Wagenknecht, the 48-year-old campaign front woman known for her sharp mind and even sharper tongue.
Barely warmed up, she lets fly at SPD leader Martin Schulz for running a centrist campaign after four years of “anti-social politics” in the Merkel era.
“The economy is booming but ever more people have poorly paid and insecure jobs, children are learning in rundown schools,” she shouts. Her audience in the working-class neighbourhood of Hohenschönhausen nod with weary familiarity, receptive to her calls for a millionaire tax to fund social spending.
Some of the Left Party programme echoes SPD programmes of 30 years ago, though diverges strongly on EU and security policy. While the SPD and Greens support EU reform and Nato, if not a jump in defence spending, the Left Party wants Germany to end military deployments, overhaul the EU from the ground up and leave Nato in favour of a new multilateral alliance involving Russia.
“Nato has transformed into an intervention alliance and instrument of American dominance,” says Wagenknecht. “At the very latest with Trump, it should be clear to everyone how that endangers our security.”
Her policies to reform banks and the welfare state make Jeremy Corbyn look like a centrist, and they are a red rag to the SPD leadership – as well as many Left Party moderates. But, unlike them, Wagenknecht is a big draw – to rallies and the ballot box.
But the great unknown of this election is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the anti-euro, refugee-critical party that, in recent state polls, peeled away voters from across the political spectrum – including the left.
“The AfD has superseded the Left Party as the catchment basin for the disaffected,” noted Renate Köcher, of the Allensbach polling institute, on Wednesday. Whether down to the AfD challenge or general disillusionment with the SPD, another election disaster looms for Germany’s left on Sunday.
With Germany poised to shift right, the big question for Monday is: what now for the left?
“It looks like the German left is in love with defeat,” mourned Die Zeit weekly, “as if it needs failure to survive.”
A possible fourth SPD defeat in the political centre qualifies the party for Einstein’s definition of insanity: repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If the Greens are lured into a Merkel coalition, the pressure will mount on the SPD to overcome lingering traumas and grievances and reach out to the Left Party.
“The SPD and Left are like siblings, sparring over similarities not differences,” says Lothar (68), sipping his caipirinha in Hohenschönhausen. “But they’ll have to come together eventually, perhaps when the economy slows down and ordinary people like us feel the pinch even more than now.”