Why is the left in Germany so weak?

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Socialists govern Portugal, Spain and Colombia, are on the rise in France. In Germany they can only dream of such successes. Taking stock ahead of this weekend's convention.

The left rarely finds momentum in elections in Germany

The German socialists these days look enviously at neighboring France. There, the left-wing alliance forged by Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in second in the parliamentary elections, embarrassing President Emmanuel Macron. Further south in Europe, socialists even govern – and have done so for years: Pedro Sánchez in Spain, António Costa in Portugal. And then there is Gustavo Pedro, who was recently elected president in Colombia.

So leftists can still be successful – but not in Germany. On the one hand, this is due to her belligerence –  and her past. Because the roots of the party lie in the communist dictatorship that ended with the peaceful revolution of 1989/90 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Until 2017, the left was the strongest opposition in the Bundestag

< p>The all-powerful Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) first became the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and in 2007 what is now the Left Party. Her greatest success: After the 2013 general election, she was the largest opposition party for four years. In the meantime, however, it is by far the smallest. In addition, it never achieved its best results at federal level, but at state level in eastern Germany, i.e. in the area of ​​the former GDR.

Messages from the left, with which they were unsuccessful in the federal and state elections

When the coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, which ruled at federal level from 1998 to 2005, radically disrupted the labor and social market with its Agenda 2010 rebuilt, the PDS allied with the disappointed SPD and trade unions. Together they gave themselves a new name: The Left.

Different reactions to Russia's war in Ukraine  

Their goal: to finally establish themselves politically to the left of the SPD throughout Germany. Government participation has long been a reality in the East. But in the West, the new, old party has remained alien to most people because of its past. In populous federal states such as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg or Rhineland-Palatinate, she has never made it into parliament. This requires five percent of the votes.

An important reason for the frequent failure is the often contradictory positions of the left in foreign and security policy. Reactions to Russia's war against Ukraine are a current example. The majority of the parliamentary group supported a motion in which Vladimir Putin was described as a “brutal aggressor and conqueror”. Sanctions against oligarchs and war profiteers were also welcomed.

“NATO is evil, the USA is evil, the German government is evil”

On the other hand, members of parliament around the former parliamentary group leader Sahra Wagenknecht set a different accent. Although they also condemn Russian President Putin, they also criticize the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Defense Alliance (NATO). Foreign policy spokesman and former party leader Gregor Gysi reacted with horror. His accusation: “complete lack of emotion regarding the war of aggression, the dead, the injured and the suffering”.

The group around Wagenknecht is only interested in saving their “old ideology” in every respect: “NATO is evil, the USA is evil, the federal government is evil,” quoted the newspaper “Neues Deutschland” from a letter by Gysi to his intra-party opponents. At the same time, NATO has currently “not made a single mistake that justifies Russia's war,” says GysiOn the other hand, the left demonstrates unity when it comes to upgrading the Bundeswehr. She rejects the planned special fund of 100 billion euros. However, she has not benefited from this attitude: In the three state elections in 2022 in Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland, the Socialists missed the leap into parliament.

The left's attitude towards NATO and the Bundeswehr has always been controversial (archive image)

In these gloomy times, the left can only console itself with the fact that it is co-governing in four of the 16 federal states: Berlin, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Thuringia. Your figurehead is Bodo Ramelow as the first and only left prime minister. For a long time he has been urging more unity: “A party that is only interested in its ideological conflicts, which have no external relevance, can very quickly disappear from the scene.”

Thuringia's Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow warns his party

A concern that has plagued the pragmatist Ramelow even more since the start of the Ukraine war. In his eyes, Putin is a “dictator”. And to the NATO critics in his own ranks, the head of a red-red-green coalition in Thuringia says: “Simply NATO bashing doesn't solve any problem.”

Janine Wissler considers left-wing issues to be up-to-date: “Why aren't we nearly exhausting this potential?”

A new board is to be elected at the federal party conference of the left in the Thuringian state capital of Erfurt. From the dual leadership elected in February 2021, only Janine Wissler is still in office after Susanne Hennig-Wellsow resigned in April 2022 due to internal party quarrels. The remaining chairman has no illusions about the state of the party: the situation is serious. “But I don't think it's hopeless.”

Almost every fifth person could imagine voting for the Left Party

Janine Wissler draws hope from a current study by the party-affiliated Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, endowment. Accordingly, 18 percent can imagine voting for the left. That's almost a fifth. “But we have to ask ourselves: Why aren't we tapping this potential?” Her answer is sobering: when it comes to central issues such as Corona, refugees or climate protection, the left has dealt more with itself “than with its political opponent”.