By Desmond Molloy
Despite a dull campaign, Germany’s federal election made both history and headlines. After twelve years at the helm in Berlin, Angela Merkel suffered a considerable setback, as her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost seats in the Bundestag, or German Parliament. CDU coalition partners, Martin Schulz’s center-left Social Democratic Party, fared even worse, and will not work with the unionin the next government. Germany’s two major political parties have been partially eclipsed by a constellation of political insurgents, from the classically liberal Free Democratic Party to the environmentally conscious Greens. Top billing for the night, however, went to Alternatif für Deutschland (AfD), the first right-wing party to enter the Bundestag since the fall of the Third Reich. As with Donald Trump’s election last November, and the Brexit vote before, German commentators took to the airwaves to dissect the possible implications of rightist populism regaining a foothold in Europe. Inevitably, the spectre of the 1930s has been raised in the country that least wants to remember it.
But the closer danger to the liberal postwar order may be on the other side of the political spectrum. Die Linke, a modern incarnation of the former East German Communist Party, lost parts of its traditional stomping grounds to AfD, as voters in poorer eastern states such as Saxony and Thuringia migrated rightwards. But in a surprise twist, Die Linke picked up support in former West Germany. Paradoxically, the AfD base grew exponentially in some of Germany’s richest states, nearly doubling its support in conservative, wealthy Bavaria.
Despite gaining marginal support in Berlin, one of its traditional strongholds, Die Linke lost ground in every other eastern state, including AfD’s new heartland of Saxony. The party was uniquely vulnerable to AfD; it presided over state governments in Germany’s poorest areas, and its platform embraced both immigration and foreign aid, both objects of AfD’s scorn. At the same time, West Germans from the “EasyJet generation,” a term coined by CDU minister Jens Spahn to describe younger Germans used to traveling across the European Union and at ease with migrants, found the globally minded Die Linke to be the perfect ideological fit (DIE ZEIT).
Die Linke appears to be meeting its stated goal of emulating UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s successful appeal to left-leaning youth. If so, the appeal to rich areas such as Hamburg, Bremen and Bavaria is understandable: all three are younger than the national average, and closely connected with the European Union as a whole. Ironically, this may be Die Linke’s best route back to power in the East: cities such as Dresden and Leipzig have been transformed in recent years, attracting young workers and climbing the rankings of quality-of-life indices (Fabricius).
Nevertheless, Die Linke’s platform is likely doomed regarding Bundestag opposition. Die Linke has demanded that Germany withdraw all troops abroad, push for the dissolution of NATO and eject American troops from their bases in the south, all of which are at odds with Merkel’s foreign policy. Some of their demands are more realistic than others; Die Linke seeks to increase public spending, cashing in the enormous surplus that Berlin built up throughout the financial crisis (“Platform”). More moderate parties like the SPD and Greens have joined Die Linke in supporting investment in infrastructure and education. But the party’s radical positions in other fields, and the long shadow of the police state over which it presided prior to 1989, is unlikely to gain tractions in Berlin. Nevertheless, a stronger participation among a generation lacking first hand experience with a menacing Stalinist regime on the border bodes well for a party many would have consigned to history’s dustbin.
Fabricius, M. (2015, May 27). “Leipzig ist die Boom-Stadt Deutschlands.” DIE WELT. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
Germany, Federal Ministry of the Interior, Federal Returning Officer. (2017, September 24 ). Bundestag Election Results 2017. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from https://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/en/bundestagswahlen/2017/ergebnisse.html
“Jens Spahn kritisiert "elitäre Hipster".” (2017, August 23). DIE ZEIT. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-08/cdu-jens-spahn-hipster-parallelgesellschaft
Martin, Michelle. “Germany's Hard Left Hopes to Take Inspiration From Corbyn's Success”. US News and World Report. Retrieved October 3, 2017 from https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-06-11/germanys-hard-left-hopes-to-take-inspiration-from-corbyns-success
“Program of the DIE LINKE Party”. Retrieved October 3, 2017 from https://en.die-linke.de/fileadmin/download/english_pages/programme_of_the_die_linke_party_erfurt_2011.pdf