Die Linke’s Defeat Is a Dire Warning for the Left

In September's German election, the socialist Die Linke party slumped to under 5 percent support. If the Left is to recover, it needs to show that it's still on the side of disenfranchised working-class voters.

A member of Die Linke wears a vest in support of the party in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. (Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert / dpa-Zentralbild / picture alliance via Getty Images)

There’s no sense putting lipstick on a pig: the German federal election, in which the socialist party Die Linke won only 4.9 percent of the vote, was an unmitigated disaster for the Left.

In the September 26 vote, the party’s support was nearly halved, compared to the last such contest in 2017. Even worse, it registered its biggest losses in its traditional Eastern strongholds, where it suffered its weakest ever result; an average of 10.1 percent across all five eastern states. Fifteen years after the East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) fused with ex–finance minister Oskar Lafontaine’s split from the Social Democrats (SPD) to form a unified socialist force, Die Linke’s future as a viable party and leading force in the European left is hanging by a thread.

Signs that Die Linke was in for a stinging defeat had been multiplying for several years. In 2019, it scored just 5.5 percent support in elections to the European Parliament — down from 7.4 percent in 2014 — and it has suffered major losses in practically every regional election since. Nevertheless, with polls placing the party on 6 or 7 percent, few expected such a life-threatening blow as the Sunday before the last turned out to be. In the days since the result, party leaders have struggled to offer a plausible explanation for the defeat — underlining the depth of Die Linke’s crisis and the absence of a clear pathway out of it.

The realization that a few thousand less votes would have spelled the end of Die Linke’s parliamentary group — a crucial source not only of public attention, but also of public funds — has reignited internal debates the leadership had sought to quell during the campaign. All signs are that rather than encourage clarification, this latest blow will merely deepen rifts that have plagued Die Linke for nearly a decade.

What Went Wrong?

Since the first exit polls on the evening of September 26, most leading party figures have emphasized that the disappointing result was not owed — at least primarily — to Die Linke’s campaign, but to objective circumstances and deeper problems. Nor, they argue, should the new leadership be blamed: after all, it is only seven months since Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow were elected cochairs, promising a fresh start after nearly nine years under a leadership that saw the party stagnate in the polls while its membership gradually declined (largely due to mortality rates among the party’s aging Eastern base).

Hennig-Wellsow suffered two fumbled talk show appearances early in her tenure, during which she appeared unfamiliar with the details of government policy and struggled to explain exactly what set Die Linke apart from its political competitors. In response, the party settled on Wissler as its lead candidate together with Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) stalwart Dietmar Bartsch, who had headlined its ticket in 2017 together with the then parliamentary cochair Sahra Wagenknecht.

Both campaigned hard, visiting nearly fifty cities in less than a month, and handled themselves well in front of the cameras. Unlike the Greens and the Christian Democrats, Die Linke’s candidates avoided serious gaffes and embarrassing press. Wissler gave several impressive performances in televised debates with other minor parties.

At the grassroots level, Die Linke emphasized door-to-door campaigning — still considered a groundbreaking innovation in German politics — and hammered away at its core social justice issues like raising the minimum wage, improving working conditions for care workers, and hiking taxes on the rich.

In Berlin, where the party was largely responsible for the ill-fated attempt at a rent cap last year, campaigners framed the vote as a “rent election.” Die Linke also tried hard to project itself as the most decisive environmentalist party by demanding climate neutrality by 2035, six years ahead of the Greens.

So, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that the campaign wasn’t the real problem. For sure, it was nothing spectacular, but by no means a disaster, and it was politically largely on-brand for a socialist party. Die Linke’s campaign materials were predictably bland (the party has employed the same design agency since 2005, and it shows), but they were no worse — arguably a bit better — than the effort last time. To understand the party’s current predicament, we need take a longer view.

Undisciplined, Antagonistic, and Incoherent

The dominant explanation for the defeat, within party ranks, is that voters turned their backs on Die Linke because of its constant infighting and inability to speak with a unified voice. Most blame is leveled against Die Linke’s former parliamentary speaker Sahra Wagenknecht, who resigned from that position in 2019 following a years-long public feud with former party cochairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger.

After a brief ceasefire, Wagenknecht came out guns blazing this spring with her latest book, Die Selbstgerechten (The Self-Righteous), a three-hundred-page reckoning with her political opponents and what she calls “lifestyle leftists,” for whom being left-wing has become a question of culture and taste rather than material or class interests.

Still one of Germany’s nonfiction bestsellers six months after its release, Wagenknecht’s book attempts to grapple, albeit polemically, with the impasse facing Die Linke. Her arguments draw heavily on Thomas Piketty’s diagnosis of a “Brahminized” left and are worth taking seriously (something that, regrettably, relatively few of her critics have done). That said, her decision to pitch the book more or less explicitly against her own party in an important election year — and her reliance on a sometimes crude “identity politics” straw man — left many in Die Linke feeling betrayed, worsened by the fact that she only returned to electoral campaigning in earnest a few months ago.

That Die Linke’s most popular figure spent much of early 2021 attacking the party surely did it no favors, and may have even pushed support to below 5 percent. But even without Wagenknecht’s constant sniping, Die Linke has struggled to present a common front for nearly a decade now, after its failure to cross the 5 percent threshold in the 2012 snap elections in North Rhine-Westphalia halted its seemingly inexorable post-2005 rise.

Since then, the party has struggled to define its role in Germany’s political landscape — is it a protest party devoted to fundamental opposition, or a left-leaning corrective to the Social Democrats? A platform for disenfranchised East Germans, or a “party of movements” oriented toward the progressive intelligentsia and activist milieus?

The latest example of this ongoing indecision came in late August, when parliament voted to deploy the armed forces to evacuate German citizens and government employees from Kabul as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. As the only party to have consistently opposed the war in Afghanistan, Die Linke should have been well-placed to capitalize on the unfolding disaster and reassert its claim as the only credible antiwar party.

Instead, it resolved to abstain on the vote — a compromise reflecting divisions among its MPs, some of whom think the party should drop its opposition to NATO in order to be more in tune with the zeitgeist. Even this failed to hold, however, with five Die Linke MPs voting in favor of the deployment and seven against. Incredibly, the Greens and Social Democrats managed to use this to divert attention away from their complicity in the war — and paint Die Linke as the party with blood on its hands.

A collective No vote would doubtless have alienated some supporters. But it also would have polarized the electorate and bolstered Die Linke’s profile as an antiestablishment party right before the election. Any losses among center-left voters (who all appear to have deserted the party this time around anyway) could probably have been compensated for by picking up protest votes to their left.

Even the decision to abstain, however, could have been communicated better had all MPs stuck to party discipline and spoken with one voice. Instead, even on an issue where Die Linke has held a principled position for two decades, internal divisions ended up creating an own goal at a crucial moment.

Missing Foundations

Poor public relations and poor party discipline are issues that, at least theoretically, could be resolved by hiring new campaign staff or expelling uncooperative MPs like Wagenknecht and her supporters — as a group of self-described “migrant politicians” called for just days after the election. Indeed, the party will need to speak with a unified voice in the future if it wants to regain political relevance, and some new branding wouldn’t hurt either. But neither of those moves will address the root of the problem: the collapse of Die Linke’s social base and its inability to build a new one.

The last decade has seen the party swap out large parts of its electorate. In 2009, when Die Linke scored a record 11.9 percent in the federal election, it campaigned on populist terms and brazenly denounced the entire political establishment. The strategy paid off: Die Linke took in over a quarter of the vote in the East, and peeled off 1 million votes from the Social Democrats in the West.

According to exit polls, it captured 17 percent of trade union members’ votes and 25 percent of the unemployed. Buoyed by the financial crisis and fears that working people would end up bailing out the banks, Die Linke sailed into parliament led by the charismatic and popular Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine.

These numbers had already begun to decline by the next election in 2013, and its problems continued in 2017, when Bartsch and Wagenknecht topped the ticket. Though Die Linke’s overall result improved slightly over 2013, climbing to 9.2 percent, it dropped below 20 percent in the East for the first time, and only took in 12 percent of trade unionists and 11 percent of the unemployed.

As it lost ground among its traditional Eastern base, Die Linke compensated by picking up younger voters in big cities and university towns, less drawn by antiestablishment rhetoric than by a set of more or less coherent, progressive values. Exit polls suggested that by 2017 over 70 percent of Die Linke’s supporters voted for the party for ideological reasons. It is these milieus that have been most repelled by Wagenknecht in recent years — and vice versa.

Reality Bites

Until recently, Die Linke’s leadership appeared confident that this recomposition of its electorate would work out in its favor — or at least stave off an existential crisis. The party had failed to enter most West German state parliaments, but it consolidated a few strongholds, most notably in Berlin, and together with its dwindling but sizable Eastern base appeared to be on course to stay in parliament for the foreseeable future. The shortsightedness of this calculation came into full view on September 26, when Die Linke’s support in the East collapsed to unprecedented lows and many of its Western footholds were pulled out from underneath it.

Exit polls offer some clues as to where these losses came from. Beyond its problems in the East — which can be chalked up to a combination of core supporters dying off (250,000 since 2017) and losing its protest role to the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) — over half a million 2017 Die Linke voters didn’t vote at all this year. It is impossible to say exactly why they stayed home, but the fact that 70 percent of voters (and 46 percent of Die Linke supporters) said they thought the party no longer had competent leaders probably had something to do with it.

So, who did stick to the party? A demographic breakdown reveals Die Linke won only 6 percent of union members, 5 percent of workers, and a dismal 3 percent of voters without a college degree — suggesting that the heaviest losses were among the most disenfranchised. The chances that these voters abandoned the party because they were angry at Wagenknecht’s opposition to open borders and gender-inclusive language — practically dogma in some corners of the party at this point — are low, to say the least.

Meanwhile, in the center-left camp, hundreds of thousands of voters defected to the Social Democrats (820,000) and the Greens (610,000). As SPD candidate Olaf Scholz’s polling numbers continued to climb and the Christian Democrats reached previously unthinkable lows, Die Linke tried to position itself as the only guarantee against a “traffic light” coalition between the center-left and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). The party’s main argument became: If voters wanted the Social Democrats and the Greens to govern, they should back Die Linke.

The PDS attempted a similar strategy in the 2002 election — incidentally, the last time a socialist party failed to cross the 5 percent threshold. This time, too, it seems that few voters were receptive to this message. After all, with the SPD talking left and the Greens appearing well-positioned to push through at least part of their climate agenda, why risk wasting votes on a party that no one else wants to govern with, anyway?

No Shortcuts

As soon as results started rolling in, Wagenknecht took to the airwaves to cite them as further proof that Die Linke’s increased focus on educated, urban milieus had alienated it from its traditional base. Her opponents, concentrated in a faction known as the “Movement Left,” have dug in their heels — pointing to marginal gains in Berlin districts like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, or a successful referendum to nationalize the capital’s biggest landlord, as proof that the problem was not too much activism in the major cities, but not enough.

On critical inspection, both narratives appear flimsy. After all, Wageknecht and her supporters faced equally disappointing results in their own bastion of North Rhine-Westphalia — suggesting that the party’s problems go deeper than having too many college-educated faces on the ballot. Meanwhile, passionate appeals to a grassroots, activism-oriented “connective class politics” are not as new as the movementists’ rhetoric implies.

The reality is that the movementists have run the party’s so-called “Department for Program and Strategy” for nearly a decade, and are an increasingly dominant presence in almost all party organs. They have had countless chances to halt Die Linke’s ongoing decline, yet their favored approach seems to enjoy little resonance outside of small, preexisting groups of activists — seemingly the only milieu in which the party’s support has grown in the last few years.

The biggest limitation of “connective class politics” is its fundamental overestimation of the strength and radicalism of the “movements” it seeks to represent. Take Fridays for Future, the school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg that Die Linke has sought to curry favor with for the last two years, and which many in the party see as representing its political future. The demonstrations have been large and impressive, but research suggests that they remain overwhelmingly the domain of young people from the middle and upper classes.

Little surprise, then, that the two strongest parties among first-time voters two weeks ago turned out to be the FDP and the Greens, with Die Linke second-bottom, above only the AfD. Demanding climate action, it seems, does not necessarily correlate with voting for a socialist party. And why should it? Recognizing that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity does not negate class and material interests. Many young people taking to the streets over climate change may be as driven by concerns over their own future prosperity as by any kind of deeply egalitarian impulse. Most likely, the reality is somewhere in between.

The campaign to socialize Berlin’s largest landlord, Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen, appears to offer more promising prospects: after all, it won over 1 million votes for expropriating a major corporation (a 56 percent majority). Yet, despite this impressive victory and Die Linke’s prominent role in the campaign, it failed to translate into higher electoral returns. Only a quarter of Berliners who voted for expropriation also cast their ballot for the sole party that supported this same move.

Berliners evidently support public housing, but they are still far from subscribing to a socialist political program — let alone ready to fight for it. Perhaps partially because, even at its peak, the campaign only involved several thousand people. Rather than demonstrating the imminent potential for a radical mass movement, the referendum showed what small groups of dedicated, well-organized activists can accomplish.

Last Chance on the Stairway

Die Linke spent a decade positioning itself as the social conscience of German politics, and in doing so patched together a fragile, cross-class coalition of voters concerned with a wide range of social issues. At the same time, it watched its foothold among Germany’s 8 million low-wage workers melt away, along with its once mighty Eastern core vote. Now that this coalition has collapsed as center-left voters flock back to the Greens and SPD, Die Linke has four years to reinvent itself — or risk disappearing from the party landscape for good.

Given the sheer toxicity of relations between Wagenknecht and the rest of the party, a split appears likely. This could prove fatal, given her outsized popularity and the dearth of charismatic figures in the party leadership, but would at least put an end to the constant bickering, and mean that the new leadership has no one to blame but itself should a turnaround fail to materialize. But what would such a turnaround entail?

The space for a socialist party in Germany certainly exists, and will likely grow as the long-term economic effects of the pandemic reverberate. Should the next coalition — likely a pact between the center-left and the free-marketeer FDP — fail to live up to SPD and Green campaign promises, there will be fodder enough for Die Linke to voice a loud opposition in parliament and on the streets. Die Linke’s problem has never been that it was wrong on the issues, but rather that it failed to communicate them in an effective way and struggled to define its audience.

Yet, the audience surely is there. Germany is a wealthy country, but there are still millions living at or below the poverty line, who struggle to make ends meet and have no one to represent their interests in the public sphere. Germany also has some of the strongest trade unions in Europe and has witnessed a significant uptick in labor conflicts in several industries, such as the ongoing strike by hospital workers in Berlin. East or West, black or white, gay or straight — these are the people who can provide the foundation for a strong, sustainable socialist party.

Supporting social movements and attracting idealistic young activists will no doubt continue to be an important component of building such a party. But in order to reach beyond the urban milieus that have proven to be its last bastion in recent months, it will have to abandon the notion that nebulous “movements” are the future, and return to the kind of populist, antiestablishment messaging that brought it success a decade ago. Voters neither want nor need a slightly more progressive version of the SPD or the Greens. That, more than anything else, should be the conclusion drawn from last month’s election.

Should Die Linke manage to pull itself together and function as an effective opposition in the years to come, it may be able to recover the millions of voters it has lost since 2009. That, in turn, would provide the foundation to begin rebuilding the party and developing a strategy to join government from a position of strength rather than weakness. Until it does so, it will serve as nothing but another warning sign — a failed experiment in reforming the European left.