germany’s shifting political landscape — part two: what’s next for the left party?

Another weekend, another German regional election, this time in Berlin. And in stark contrast to the recent outcome in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (MV), the Berlin Senate result gave a much-needed boost to the Left Party. But some trends are still worrying: in both elections, waged workers supported the right-wing populist AfD over the democratic socialists; and unlike the Left Party, the AfD managed to mobilise non-voters. What does this mean for the Left Party? This blog, the second of two posts reflecting on September’s regional elections, looks at some of the challenges ahead for the Left.

A brief overview of the Berlin election result [1]: the Left Party achieved 15.6%, an increase of 3.9% compared to its election disaster of 2011. The party is now the largest in East Berlin  (23.4%), has reached double figures in the West (10.1%) and, encouragingly, received most support from young voters (17%). As in MV and elsewhere, the party performed best among voters with a university education (19%). In terms of occupational group, there was no difference in the level of support among salaried employees and waged workers (16%), while voter share among the self-employed edged slightly ahead (18%). In light of the MV result, the party warned it would be unconscionable for the AfD to become bigger than the Left in Berlin. But while the AfD did indeed trail the Left Party (14.2%), the AfD, now represented in ten regional parliaments, has become the largest party among Berlin’s waged workers (25%), ahead of both the Left Party and SPD.

challenges ahead

1. protest votes and credibility

The Left Party has often attracted the ‘protest vote’. In the early 1990s, the party  won the votes of people dismayed at the realities of unification; later on, when the SPD-Green national government implemented its draconian welfare and employment market reforms, the subsequent anger and protest resulted in the forging of the Left Party itself, as we know it today.

left-party-placard

Furthermore, as the only current Bundestag party never to have entered into a federal coalition, it hasn’t been ‘tainted’ by government at national level. However, this is not the case at regional level in MV, Berlin, or indeed in a number of other eastern states, where the Left Party (or its predecessor, the PDS) has either joined or ‘tolerated’ an SPD-led coalition. Consequently, the Left Party has found itself responsible for  implementing the same unpopular measures against which it has bitterly fought. Moreover, with the imposition of the national ‘debt brake’ (a ban on deficit-funded public spending), the role of regional governments will be increasingly limited to management of austerity and cuts. As the policy scope becomes ever narrower, how will the Left Party convince voters that it can deliver policies that aren’t just more of the same? This is likely to be a particular bone of contention in Berlin, where the election outcome points to an SPD-led red-red-green coalition. Ahead of next year’s General Election, the debate is likely to open up deep conflict divisions in the party, between those who strive for a red-red-green federal coalition, and those who fear an unacceptable asking price in terms of credibility and policy, based on experience of past coalition anguish and the clear water between the SPD and Left Party (e.g. employment conditions, welfare, CETA).

2. still a party of the east?

The PDS successfully positioned itself as the defender of post-unification eastern interests, but has the Left Party outgrown this role? The post-unification trauma is but a distant memory to some, while younger voters who never experienced that uncertainty (or indeed life in the other Germany) will know no different to the present realities. Also, Germany’s demographics mean that the party has to win support across the whole country [2], so policies have to appeal beyond the East. Yet even though unification took place over a quarter of a century ago, inequalities (pay, welfare, pensions) still exist between the two regions. Politically, the East has provided fertile ground for the far right. The far-right NPD is no stranger to regional parliaments, the anti-Islam Pegida movement mushroomed in eastern cities and this year, the AfD has achieved its strongest results in eastern regional elections. Despite the AfD’s more modest result in Berlin, the Left Party has a real battle on its hands if it is to win back the support of waged workers and former non-voters who this time chose to support the right. The party scored well in competence ratings in the areas of social justice, schools and solving the problem of Berlin’s spiralling rents, but faces an uphill task in countering the prevailing rhetoric on immigration and refugees. Here, the challenge is to set out social, practical policies — within the fiscal constraints imposed by federal government — and frame inequalities throughout the country in terms of a wider debate on the failings of capitalism.

3. who is the target voter?

Increasingly, the Left Party finds it difficult to appeal to (non-)voters living in the poorest neighbourhoods and mobilise along class lines. In MV, the party’s performance was particularly weak in economically weak rural areas, and stronger in inner city districts of university towns. In Berlin, the SPD held onto the city’s poorer western inner suburbs, while the AfD dominated poor neighbourhoods in the eastern outskirts. Interestingly, the Left Party’s stronghold was located in the eastern urban areas, sandwiched between the poor outer suburbs and the increasingly gentrified Green-voting centre. But this is hardly unique to Berlin or the East. My PhD research in Bremen clearly pointed to two ‘typical’ areas of support for the Left Party: traditional working-class SPD-dominated districts, and inner city neighbourhoods associated with (lower) middle-class, educated Green voters. In Bremen’s 2015 election, the Left Party’s voter share in traditional social democratic districts stagnated, but flourished in inner-city Green-leaning areas; the Berlin result echoes this pattern. So we see two distinct Left Party core voter groups: waged workers and the unemployed on the one hand, and more affluent, highly educated voters on the other. Could this lead to a perceived clash of interests? For example, a tension between the antimilitarist policy of banning weapons exports on the one hand, and potentially related cuts in  manual jobs (logistics, ports) on the other? Will alienated working-class (non-)voters see the Left Party as a credible alternative to the austerity of the capitalist mainstream, when the same party — perhaps in a coalition — also appeals to young, educated voters in up-and-coming (and increasingly unaffordable) neighbourhoods?

As we can see, the Left Party can be encouraged by the Berlin vote, but still faces formidable challenges. It has to mobilise and win back voters along class lines, reframe the rhetoric surrounding migration and integration, appeal to its traditional eastern core and strengthen support among young, educated urban voters. Simultaneously. Certainly not easy, but the Left Party is nothing if not resilient. What’s more, the challenges outlined above overlap with the three key policy areas that form the Left Party’s USP: anti-capitalism, representation of eastern interests and anti-militarism, thus allowing the party to build on its strengths. But the other big question will be how to do so most credibly and sustainably: as an opposition force in parliament and on the streets? Or within an SPD-led coalition?

______

Notes:

[1] Berlin election data is sourced from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen. Graphics are also available here. For data on the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election see Forschungsgruppe Wahlen here.

[2] There aren’t enough voters in the eastern states to deliver the five per cent voter share required to clear the electoral threshold and form a parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

Image: ‘Vote Left Party’ placard photo courtesy of Die Linke Berlin

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