international analysis and commentary

Why Germany’s Left fell behind and what’s in store

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In recent elections in Norway, Austria and Germany, there has been a pattern of left-wing parties either losing votes or failing to achieve their goal to get a majority that would allow them to lead a government. The situation looks brighter in the UK, where Labour is hoping to regain Downing Street and the Commons in less than two years. Its hopes are founded on a solid lead in IPSOS opinion polls almost throughout the current legislature. but this margin might narrow down towards election day. This is exactly what happened to the Left in Germany: two years ago, the Social Democrats and the Greens alone were holding an absolute majority in Forsa opinion polls. Eventually, the two parties ended up getting hardly over a third of all votes.

On the other hand, with a result of 41.5% of votes, the Christian Democrats can certainly be satisfied with the outcome of their electoral campaign. After favorable opinion polls for a parliamentary majority between the two elections, it is remarkable how the potential of left-wing voters was not sufficiently mobilized.

Although  votes for the radical left Die Linke also went down from 11.9% to 8.6%, the party does not consider itself a major loser of the election. In fact, it is now the third strongest party in the Bundestag and if the coalition between CDU and SPD materializes, it will be the first opposition party, ahead of the Greens. Still, it has become evident that Die Linke needs to better communicate its agenda if it wants to be voted by a larger electorate. Its main priorities are largely accepted and endorsed by the German public: a minimum wage, lowering the retirement age from 67 to 65, a stronger control of the banking sector and a peaceful foreign policy. However, many people still do not trust the party. Twenty-three years after the end of the GDR, Die Linke is struggling with its image as an ex-communist party and questions are raised about the feasibility of its projects. In addition, internal fights in recent years have somewhat disappointed its potential electorate.

Much more astonishing is the number of votes lost by the Greens, especially looking back two years. In 2011, after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the party’s core issue was back to the center of the political agenda. In the following weeks, it was surfing on a green wave in the opinion polls. In the media, it was even labeled as the new main “popular” party (Volkspartei) next to SPD and CDU. Although the Greens continued to enjoy double-digit approval ratings, this was fading, ending with a crude 8.4% result on election day.

The party was campaigning with a strong left-wing profile in this election. One of its main buzzwords during the campaign was “social justice”, which aimed to reach out to the working class and a socially more vulnerable electorate. This was paired with a focus on tax increases for people earning over €60,000 a year. However, the Greens’ core electorate is made up by a large part of an academic middle class whose income is higher than that, which led to core voters favoring the SPD and CDU. Eventually, the Greens retained only 48% of their vote from four years ago.

Regarding the environment in Germany, there is now a consensus to promote the energy turnaround (Energiewende) and environmental awareness. However, and somewhat paradoxically, it was the conservative CDU together with the business-friendly FDP that passed the phasing-out law of nuclear energy, following the disaster in Fukushima. Thus, the key issue of the Green agenda was captured by the center-right government and embraced by all parties in the Bundestag. This made it difficult for the Greens to shine.

Their potential coalition partner, the SPD, was struggling with different problems. The party’s chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, nominated Peer Steinbrück as the candidate for Chancellor because of his good reputation in economic and financial matters. As a Finance Minister for Angela Merkel from 2005 to 2009, he was praised across the political spectrum for his financial expertise and crisis management. However, during the recent electoral campaign, he was attacked for having a program that was too left-wing, including a national minimum wage and tax increases for the highest earners. According to center-right publications like the Frankfurter Allgemeine or the Focus, this alienated many swing voters, who ended up casting their vote for the CDU. Steinbrück’s problem was that Merkel’s CDU has been shifting more and more from the right towards the center, which made it very difficult for the Social Democrats to mobilize that voter potential.

From the far left perspective, mainly from Die Linke, the SPD candidate was accused of being responsible for social cutbacks, being one of the architects of the controversial Agenda 2010 reforms, which had led to a higher flexibility of the labor market. Under attack both from the left (for having a candidate that was too neo-liberal) and the center-right (for having a program that was too left-wing), the Social Democrats did not show a clear path of where they wanted to go. As the candidate and the SPD’s political agenda were not perceived as a good match, this resulted in a credibility problem.

Equally remarkable was the sloppy start of Steinbrück’s candidacy in 2012. Initially, the SPD had planned to nominate a candidate in early 2013, but his name was leaked to the press, which led to a miss-managed start of the campaign. In the following months, he was known more for his past activities of cashing in as a speaker in front of corporations and banks than for his political agenda. As a personality, Steinbrück clearly sought to show a sharp contrast to Chancellor Merkel, who is often perceived as too calm and hesitant. This focus on his personality was not well received among the German public.

Also, in the centre-left or clearly left-wing press, such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung or Der Spiegel and Der Freitag, the focus was much more on Steinbrück’s mishaps than on his political program. Many leading left-wing journalists would have preferred the SPD’s Chairman Sigmar Gabriel as a candidate. In any case, he never seemed to fully recover from that shaky start.

Overall, it would be simplistic to argue that the media was responsible for the electoral result: the credibility gap with the wider electorate was serious for both the Greens and the Social Democrats.

Ironically, although both parties fell short of their expectations, one of them is very likely to become part of the government since the CDU lost its junior coalition partner as the FDP did not make it into the Bundestag after winning only 4.8% of votes. In the past four years, the Greens and the Social Democrats largely backed the government on its approach towards the euro crisis, voting in favor of the bailout programs to the indebted countries only on condition that they be linked to reforms in the public sector.

However, both parties emphasized during the campaign that now is the time for a stronger focus on recovery and growth. This means that with either the Greens or the Social Democrats in the next government, there might be a loosening of social cutbacks. It will be interesting to see if they can restore their credibility as they push for more solidarity with the affected people in the indebted countries in Southern Europe.