Die Linke Won a Battle. The Far Right Is Winning the War.

Sunday’s contest in Thuringia, eastern Germany, saw Die Linke win a state election for the first time. But the bigger story was the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland — a far-right insurgency now conquering the youth vote.

Bjoern Hocke (R) of the right-wing Alternative for Germany and Bodo Ramelow of Die Linke (L), arrive for a television interview following state elections in Thuringia on October 27, 2019 in Erfurt, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

Sunday was a good night for the members and supporters of Germany’s left-wing Die Linke party, as it picked up a historic 31 percent of the vote in the Thuringia state election. Led by Bodo Ramelow — the incumbent minister-president — it won resoundingly, bucking Die Linke’s otherwise largely downward trend in recent years.

Voters were rather less forgiving to Ramelow’s two erstwhile coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, which each took heavy losses. The outgoing “red-red-green” coalition lost its majority, and any future Ramelow administration will involve either a minority government or difficult negotiations with parties to his right.

Yet most alarming was the score for a party that won’t be in the next government. The right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), led by the demagogic Björn Höcke, doubled its result and is now the second-strongest party in the state.

Taken as a whole, Die Linke’s 3 percent rise is little comfort in light of these other, unsettling developments. Die Linke received its best result since German reunification and came first place in a state election for the first time in history. But if celebration was in order on Sunday night, there are also storm clouds on the horizon.

Treading Softly Towards Socialism?

Ramelow first became Thuringia’s minister-president after the last such contest in late 2014. His government had a razor-thin majority, propped up by the SPD and the Greens, with a broadly center-left platform calling for political reforms and renewed infrastructural investment. Though Die Linke had polled well in Thuringia for years, Ramelow’s election marked a novelty in two respects: he was not only the first Die Linke politician to lead a state government, but also headed up the first red-red-green coalition in German history.

Five years into his tenure, Bodo appears to have done pretty well for himself. From the outset the conservative establishment labeled him an “apologist for Stalinism,” given his refusal to label East Germany an Unrechtsstaat or “unlawful state” — an ambiguous term also widely used to characterize the Nazi regime. Ramelow nevertheless managed to gain the offensive in public opinion, apologizing for the injustices of state socialism in his inauguration speech (though he himself is from West Germany), and presiding over five years of stable governance and modest economic growth. He received more votes for reelection this Sunday than in his initial election in 2014 and enjoys a broad popularity. According to exit polls, even one-quarter of AfD voters thought Bodo was doing a good job.

Change under the red-red-green administration has been gradual. Indeed, the boldest political reform it attempted — redrawing the boundaries of the state’s municipalities to reflect demographic shifts and population decline — failed to gain a parliamentary majority. Yet Thuringia’s economy is performing comparatively well, and the government did follow through on several campaign promises. A majority of voters polled felt that life has improved or at least remained the same since Ramelow’s election. Less than one in six thought life had gotten worse.

Bodo’s coalition has been a moderately social-democratic administration in the best sense of the word. The government passed laws guaranteeing all families two years of free childcare, hired hundreds of new teachers, expanded high-speed internet access (a constant headache in the eastern states), and bolstered public transport subsidies for students. Thuringia hired hundreds of new police officers, but also dissolved the state branch of the “Office for the Protection of the Constitution” in an attempt to bring the controversial agency, which faces growing criticism for alleged ties to far-right terrorism, into line.

Despite the defeat of Ramelow’s redistricting plan, his government has managed to boost funding to local governments. Exacerbated by population decline in most of the eastern states, chronically underfunded local administrations are one of the most visible expressions of austerity in Germany. While critics claim that the spending increases were too little, too late, Ramelow’s government did at least manage to bolster their funding by around €100 million. Most importantly, despite the persistence of a large low-wage sector, unemployment has hovered around 5 percent and the economy continues to grow above the national average.

Bodo Rides Solo

The Thuringian party’s success signals a victory for Die Linke’s more pragmatic currents, which hope to replicate the state’s red-red-green coalition elsewhere. Since the party’s founding, Die Linke has wrestled with the question of how, if at all, socialist parties should join coalition governments in bourgeois democracies — particularly in the face of general austerity and low growth rates that limit the welfare state’s room to maneuver.

The party began joining coalitions in several eastern states in the early 2000s, generally as the junior partner of the SPD. All of these, however, ended with Die Linke taking heavy electoral losses in the next few election cycles. The Thuringian coalition is now joined by a second red-red-green experiment in Berlin, where the SPD leads a three-party administration that has passed several significant reforms, including a tentative five-year rent freeze. A third red-red-green coalition also recently formed in the economically ailing city-state of Bremen.

Thus, in a period where Die Linke has tended to lose support and found hopes of a national red-red-green coalition undermined by the collapse of the SPD, Bodo’s tenure in Thuringia gives the party an example to look up to — a successful, reform-oriented government with Die Linke in the starring role. Understandably, a variety of party luminaries have highlighted its successes. Retired party stalwarts Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi even went so far as to publicly encourage Ramelow to hold talks with the Christian Democrats, the only party that could provide him with a parliamentary majority excluding the AfD.

Bodo, for his part, maintains a calculated distance to the national party. He focused his campaign largely on himself and his state government’s achievements rather than involve himself in the sometimes-bruising ideological debates in the national leadership. This time around, his campaign posters did not even mention Die Linke.

Given the party’s otherwise disappointing electoral performance, it is no surprise that Die Linke supporters look to Thuringia for inspiration. Yet it is hard to picture a scenario in which red-red-green will become an option on the national stage anytime soon, particularly as the unprecedented rise of the AfD destabilizes parliamentary politics and makes majorities of any kind difficult to come by. After all, even Bodo’s governing majority dissipated after one term, and his biggest opponent in the new parliament will be the populist right.

Thuringia is the only state in Germany in which Die Linke has managed to largely assume the place of the old SPD, at least in electoral terms. Outside of Thuringia, it remains caught between a rock and a hard place. Justified in its demands, it lacks any means of translating them into practical politics except through sustained mass mobilizations. Yet such mobilizations are nowhere in sight.

At the same time, Ramelow’s particular success also says something about the role of personality in politics. German media’s tendency to talk up “the Bodo Effect” to explain Die Linke’s popularity, rather than take seriously the party’s policies, soon gets old. But it is undeniable that his two decades as a prominent and generally well-liked figure in state politics have given the party’s profile a major boost. As a young party with few deep roots in the organized labor movement, Die Linke has struggled to build coherent, lasting links between its public image and a broad electoral base. A likable face is no substitute for powerful social movements and electoral majorities — but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Resistible Rise of Björn Höcke

The other big — indeed, bigger — story of election night was the continued rise of the right-populist AfD. Though trailing Die Linke in almost every district, the AfD came in a strong second with 23.8 percent of the vote and was the night’s biggest winner. It performed particularly well among voters under twenty-five, rural populations, and previous nonvoters. As is usually the case with anti-immigrant parties across Europe, the AfD’s voting base also skews heavily male.

The AfD’s success in Thuringia corresponds to its results in two other eastern states earlier this fall, and once again demonstrates that the party is no fleeting phenomenon. Particularly troubling in the Thuringian case, however, is the fact that the state-level party — led by Germany’s most gifted fascist orator, Björn Höcke — is noticeably to the right of its national counterpart.

Höcke stands out among his party peers not only for his open advocacy of race science and what amounts to ethnic cleansing of nonwhite populations from Germany, but also for his professional composure and skill as a politician. In many ways, he is the AfD’s most sinister figure. He is no caricature of a provincial simpleton with an irrational dislike for immigrants, but rather a disciplined, ideologically driven operator.

Höcke has grasped the AfD’s potential to become a mass party that if not directly espouses at least tolerates and provides cover for his brand of organized white supremacy. His wing of the party — literally called “The Wing” — is flanked by a network of self-styled intellectuals and far-right activist groups constituting the bedrock of the country’s New Right, of which the AfD is only the most well-known ­and superficially palatable expression.

While the AfD continues to assert itself as the new champion of the dispossessed across the eastern states, Die Linke’s base in Thuringia remains disproportionately concentrated among voters over fifty and the retired. Its support among workers and the youth has not collapsed the way it did earlier this fall in Brandenburg and Saxony, but it split the trade unionist vote with the far-right — showing how precarious traditional dividing lines have become in parliamentary politics. Defending and consolidating Die Linke’s dominant position in the state will prove tricky, especially as the AfD is now the leading party among young Thuringians. Ramelow will have to seek tactical alliances with a variety of parties to pass individual laws, or else enter negotiations with the entire range of parties beyond the AfD.

It is not yet clear what form the new government will take. Ramelow’s position is bolstered by Thuringia’s unique constitutional provision, allowing the sitting minister-president to remain in power indefinitely should a stable coalition fail to materialize. But with the far-right Björn Höcke leading the parliamentary opposition, the political stakes both within and beyond this minor eastern state have just been upped considerably.