A Bittersweet Election Super Sunday for the Left in Germany

The German elections were a disaster but there were some small beacons of hope in Berlin

At six o’clock in the evening on Sunday, the German public television stations ZDF and ARD published their first electoral projections as the polling stations closed. Die LINKE was facing the abyss as it fell below 5%, the threshold that keeps political parties out of the Bundestag unless they win at least three directly mandated deputies in the districts.

The German voting system is a double ballot: one for the district (personal) candidacy and one for the party. If the party vote is above 5% of the overall ballot, the seats for deputies in the lower house are then distributed accordingly.

The tension was evident in Die LINKE headquarters. There was silence in the places where the militants were gathered, worried faces, some tears and clenched fists. The projections from the first counts were not at all flattering and there were even some that showed 4.9% – a fateful situation that would mean the disappearance of any party to the left of the Social Democracy in the Bundestag. If anyone wondered, the Greens would not be that leftwing alternative.

However, at around ten o’clock in the evening, there was finally some good news. Although the projections still kept Die LINKE outside parliament in the vestibule of a Dantesque hell, it was confirmed that three direct candidacies were entering the Bundestag. Firstly, the immortal Gregor Gysi (73 years old) once again swept up the Berlin-Treptow-Köpenick constituency with 20% of the poll, well ahead of any other candidate. Secondly, Gesine Lötzsch kept her place for the sixth time in her direct mandate in Berlin-Lichtenberg. By contrast, die LINKE lost its direct mandate in other historically left-wing districts such as Berlin-Pankow or Berlin-Marzahn-Hellersdorf.

Last, but by no means least, as this confirmed Die LINKE’s participation in the forthcoming parliament, was the anti-fascist resistance in Saxony (which is otherwise dyed with the blue of AfD on the electoral maps). Sören Pellmann once again kept his seat for the second election running in the district of Leipzig II, extending his winning margin compared to 2017.

What happened to Die LINKE at the federal level?

Although the scare of being banished from parliament has now receded, the concern at how close it was has not diminished. The result is frankly, bad. And even with the results still hot out of the oven, there are already some clues as to what happened.

For less politicized people, it is clear that the 2021 election has been a pragmatic vote to try to oust the ruling CDU/CSU conservative party, now missing its leader Angela Merkel, German Chancellor for the last 16 years. The competition between Analenna Bärbock, leader of the Greens, and Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrat SPD, to win the hegemony of the center to the left, has pulled many votes from Die LINKE over to these parties.

This becomes clear when one sees the double direction of the vote in Berlin, where Die LINKE held on to 14% (-1.6%) in the elections to the city-state’s house of representatives while at the same time only obtaining 11.4% (-7.3%) in the elections to the Bundestag within the traditionally left wing German capital.

For more politicized people, however, there are more clues. Die LINKE had neither succeeded in establishing its own profile in the campaign nor in making its candidates, Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch, well known to the voters. This could have been because there was too much discussion about possible government coalitions and not about the program itself.

On the other hand, a certain Die LINKE politician called Sahra Wagenknecht has had her own very divisive effects on this election. The best-known Die LINKE leader has continued to monopolize the party’s representation on television, blocking any possible change of ideological leadership at least within the public mindset. Her lack of solidarity and her eagerness for the limelight is evident on all television stations, which are currently her last resort to defend political theses that are in the minority within Die LINKE ranks and which, moreover, have been unsuccessful. As a candidate of Die LINKE in North Rhine-Westphalia, she obtained a miserable 3.7% and has lost more than 50% of the electoral support. In Berlin, which would be the core of the left that she despises, the loss of support has been much smaller.

It is worth remembering the role that Sahra Wagenknecht has played in weakening Die LINKE in this last year. While the party was proposing a program where important issues such as climate justice, solidarity with migrants or feminist and LGTBI+ policies were opening the way, Sahra Wagenknecht published a book entitled Die Selbstgerechte, mein Gegenprogramm (the self righteous ones, my alternative programme), where she charges against Fridays for future, against the activism of social movements and makes a conservative and in certain aspects nationalist-worker retreat far removed from the theses supported by the majority and from a German society that is not the same as that of the 60s or 70s. Her stubborn effort to win support in the media for what she has lost in the party and not to accept her campaign’s results has also damaged Die LINKE in these elections.

Wagenknecht’s campaign has led to a wave of disaffiliations from the party, mainly in North Rhine-Westphalia, her stronghold, and has alienated possible new supporters from social movements. Her acolytes have also distanced themselves from Die LINKE by accusing the party of putting her in the moral dock, an inference only derived from the fact that Wagenknecht has toured the televisions as if she was a victim.

In Berlin, Die LINKE resists and the expropriation referendum sweeps through

While it is true that Die LINKE has lost some positions in Berlin, the constant mobilization of the militancy during the last year, against the background of Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen, the referendum to expropriate 240,000 houses from the big real estate companies, has kept Die LINKE with its own defined and combative profile in the German capital. In Berlin, it was the only party with parliamentary representation which clearly and unequivocally supported the referendum. The 14% it acquired in the state elections, although lower than desired, shows that mobilization, coherence and persistence are the best allies for the left.

However, Die LINKE Berlin has not managed to channel the full force of the expropriation movement despite being the only party to strongly support it. The referendum had a historic turnout of 75%, with a YES support of 56.4% and a NO of 39%, far from the tight results that the polls were suggesting. 1,034,709 people voted to expropriate the big real estate companies and now it is up to the Berlin chamber to decide whether to legislate or not.

Franziska Giffey, leader of the Berlin Social Democrats and (almost certainly) future mayor, has declared on several occasions that she does not want to expropriate, despite the fact that the referendum has a majority support among her voters, among the party’s youth and in a good part of the rest of the party.

The Greens in Berlin declared that they only wanted to convert the expropriation into law “as a last resort”, ignoring the fact that it is already the last resort, since the German Constitutional Court overturned the rent regulation, the Mietendeckel (rent cap), using the justification that Berlin did not have the competence to enact it. Die LINKE has found room here to continue defending the legislation of expropriation and socialization of housing, to exert pressure and to continue setting a coherent profile of its own that keeps militants and like-minded people mobilized.

After all, the combative wave generated by the expropriation movement is not going to be diluted from one day to the next, especially if the parties do not comply with the democratic mandate. In all this context, it is not known whether the left-wing coalition in Berlin will be renewed or whether Giffey’s SPD, the most conservative wing of the party, will turn to the liberals.

The elections, especially for those of us who live in Berlin and are members of Die LINKE, have left a bittersweet taste in our mouths. The worrying trend at the federal level has been compensated for by a decent result in Berlin and a very promising referendum result. Now it is time to draw the future of the left in Germany, to achieve the definitive generational change in Die LINKE, to strengthen the policies of climate justice and to defend the argument that we must change the capitalist system to save the planet. We must continue defending international solidarity and the right to asylum and migration, extend the right of the vote to people without German nationality, as well as continuing to denounce the social inequalities of a system that suffocates health workers, pensioners and young people who cannot find stable and quality employment.


Jaime Martínez, Izquierda Unida Berlín / Die LINKE. Steglitz-Zehlendorf

This article first appeared in Spanish in Mundo Obrero. Translation Jaime Martinez / John Culatto. Reproduced with permission