• Germany's New Nationwirde Party: Die LINKE

  • Por Cornelia Hildebrandt | 27 May 09
  • In summer 2007 the Left Party/PDS merged with the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG) to form a new party – Die LINKE.

    At present Die LINKE has about 71,900 members, of whom 28,181 are women. The proportion of women in 2007 was about 39 %, as against 45.3% in 2004.1 This still gives Die LINKE a higher proportion of women than any other party represented in the Bundestag. It is a cause for concern, however, that in the case of new members this proportion only amounts to 25.3 %.
    What is remarkable is the incipient shift in the East-West distribution of party membership. The proportion of members in East Germany fell in the space of a year from 75% to 71% of the total, while in West Germany it rose from 21% to just under 29%. This was due to an increase of 5,629 members in the West and a loss of almost 3,000 members in the East (mainly through death).
    In 2006 the age structure of the Left Party was as follows: The proportion of those under 30 was 4 %, that of members aged between 31 and 60 was 28 %, and that of those over 60 was 68 %.2 However, although there are signs of an increase in the proportion of young members, it is still too slight to ensure an unequivocal rejuvenation of the party’s active base, which is one of the main challenges facing Die LINKE as a membership party. Germany’s Die LINKE is a pluralist party and must remain so. When its parent party, the PDS, was founded it consisted of four main groupings: a) those who belonged to the founding generation of the GDR, such as Hans Modrow and most of the older party members; b) representatives of the intellectual reformist wing of the SED, like Bisky and Gysi, who still provide Die LINKE with much of its political leadership today; c) pragmatic reformers, who now constitute Die LINKE’s local-level party functionaries and elected officials in East Germany and mostly belong to the “Forum of Democratic Socialism” grouping; and d) orthodox socialists, who are organised into the Communist Platform and the Marxist Forum. The latter’s position in the new party has been strengthened by the emergence of the “Anticapitalist Left” (AKL). New elements within the new party are the “Socialist Left”, a strongly union-oriented current, and the “Emancipatory Left”, a successor to the New Left and autonomous movements. All these currents are marked by the East-West divide. The resulting pluralism is currently the cause of vigorous inner-party debates.
    Regarding the social structure of the new party’s membership only vague conclusions can be reached at this point. It is clear that the social structures of the two parent parties were very different. The low average membership contributions in the WASG parent party suggest that its members came from the middle and, still more, the lower strata of society.3 Unlike the PDS, the WASG tended to see itself as a party of workers, above all trade unionists, factory council members and the middle stratum of whitecollar workers in the public services. The social structure of the PDS parent party had hardly changed in recent years: 77 % of the members were pensioners, early retirees, or unemployed. Students and trainees made up 3 %, workers 8 %, and white-collar workers 18 %. This composition permitted the emergence and stabilisation of the PDS as a socially concerned party at the grass-roots level, the bulk of whose members were socially and politically committed pensioners.
    In Oskar Lafontaine, Lothar Bisky and Gregor Gysi, Die LINKE has strong leadership personalities who all come from quite different political backgrounds and are perceived as representatives of the all-German Left, i.e. both in the East and in the West. In addition, at both national and regional levels, it has competent policy experts and leaders with many years of political experience in parliaments, trade unions and social movements  behind them. Die LINKE has thus become a nationwide political force with exceptional scope for action that is able to exert strong pressure on rival parties.

    The Electoral Base

    Unlike the other two smaller parties in Germany (Greens and FDP) the electorate of Die LINKE has roots in all social strata. According to the findings of a study by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, the social allegiance of its supporters is distributed among Germany’s political milieus as follows: 36 % upper, 31 % middle, and 33% lower class, its supporters in the upper and middle strata being mainly drawn from the critically- minded educated elites and socially concerned members of the educated classes with social-libertarian views. Die LINKE also has many supporters among white-collar workers in the public services or subordinate institutions in the educational and especially the social sectors who are looking to a renewal of the public sector on the basis of solidarity. If we look at this social stratification of Die LINKE’s electorate we can see that it is no longer only a mass party in East Germany, but potentially in West Germany as well. Its nationwide acceptance is confirmed by current surveys: Die LINKE has over 5% support in all the West German states except Bavaria, while in Brandenburg, Anhalt-Saxony and Thuringia it is the second strongest party. Die LINKE has managed to establish itself as the party of the workers, trade unionists and unemployed and of the sub-proletarian strata while also increasing its support among socially aware members of the middle classes. Seventyfive percent of its voters credit Die LINKE with competence in the area of social justice, where it was able to compete successfully with the SPD and, in East Germany, even to surpass it by a wide margin. In the 2008 state elections in Hesse, Lower Saxony and Hamburg it managed to attract a total of 364,000 voters from other parties. Of these the strongest contingents were former SPD voters (+120,000 = 33 % of Die LINKE’s total vote) and former non-voters (+65,000 = 18 % of Die LINKE’s total vote). There were also 56,000 former Green and 46,000 former CDU voters who decided to vote for Die LINKE. But the 2007 elections to the Bremen state parliament revealed another characteristic trend within the new party: 12 % of its votes came from workers, 13 % from trade unionists, and 21 % from the unemployed.

    Who voted for the Die LINKE in the state elections in Hesse, Lower Saxony and Hamburg?

    Hesse Lower Saxony Hamburg
    White-collar Workers
    Trainees and apprentices
    19 %

    Summary of election results by infratest dimap on January 27, 2008 and February 25, 2008

    If we look at the decisive issues of the last four state elections, the picture we get of Die LINKE is one of a political force that no longer expresses the justice gap only in East Germany, but also in West Germany, and that addresses not only expectations and solutions vis-à-vis employment issues but now also regarding economic and educational policy issues as well.

    Principal vote-determining issues for Die LINKE’s electorate:



     Lower Saxony


    Social justice
    Employment policy
    Economic policy
    Educational policy

    Transformation of the German Party System

    Since the last elections Die LINKE is represented in a total of ten state legislatures in which it has over 200 seats, which is more than the Greens and the FDP have. This has new implications for the municipal elections in coming years, specifically Die LINKE must now consolidate and expand its firm position in municipal politics across the whole country, profiting in so doing from the experience of the former PDS as a “party of social concern”.
    One of the causes of Die LINKE’s emergence lies “in the failure of the SPD, as a social and democratic force, to oppose neoliberalism”4. Die LINKE is not a relic of the past, but a necessary consequence of the inner contradictions of neoliberal policy, which ultimately places its own foundations in question. It is a party “which is taking shape within a … hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism”.5 Michael Brie points to the following reasons for assuming that its rise will lead to a fundamental change in the party system: first, the SPD and Die LINKE compete on equal terms as regards competence in dealing with such issues as social justice, equality, and bridging the gap between rich and poor.
    The results of the 2008 state elections in Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Hesse confirm this thesis. Secondly, Die LINKE’s positions have broad social resonance: 80 % of the population favour a poverty-proof basic insurance, while a minimum wage is demanded by a majority of the supporters of all the parties represented in the German Bundestag. The figures are 81 % for Die LINKE, 69 % for the SPD, 66 % for the Greens, 56 % for the CDU/CSU, and even 53% for the FDP.
    “In January 2008, six out of ten people (62 %) regarded the social conditions in Germany as unjust, including an above-average proportion of citizens who had low educational qualifications (72 %), a low household income (70 %), or were unemployed (76 %). In addition, the belief that conditions are unjust continues to be held mainly in East Germany (76%) and by supporters of Die LINKE (93 %)”.6
    Thirdly, Die LINKE has roots in all three tiers of society. This too is confirmed by the election results, as is the fact that it is above all a successful party of the workers (especially the unionised ones), is more inclined than any other party to represent the unemployed, and – albeit to a somewhat lesser degree – is nevertheless also capable of expanding its support to socially aware members of the middle classes.
    The rise of Die LINKE has changed the entire party system in the Federal Republic of Germany. The party system with Die LINKE as a nationwide force has not only become more European but more normal – the parliament has caught up with the times in that it now represents genuine social differences. With the entry of Die LINKE into the state legislatures of two major West German states it is no longer just a question of having different party systems at the regional level. There has been a fundamental change in the coalition-forming possibilities at the state and federal levels. Germany now has a five-party system.
    Previous alliances, such as CDU/FDP or SPD/Greens or others, are not automatically capable of forming majorities; that is, alliances between two parties – a large and a small one – are often no longer sufficient to create a political majority. With the exception of the Grand Coalition between SPD and CDU, three parties are increasingly needed to form political majorities. This marks a change in the ground rules, and Die LINKE will become a strategic force not confined to its own electorate, which will increasingly enable it to bring the socially rooted majority positions it represents into the new political constellations. This realisation is now dawning even on the SPD (if only at the state level) in Hesse, where the SPD’s top candidate obviously is still trying to bring into being a minority government consisting of SPD and Greens that would be tolerated by Die LINKE. Something similar occurred in 1994 in East Germany, in the state of Anhalt-Saxony. At the same time, the CDU is trying to form a coalition with the Greens in Hamburg.

    For a New Alliance to Change the Direction of Politics

    If Die LINKE wants to play a strong role as a nationwide left democratic political force in the long term, it will have to develop as part of a left force with roots in society pressing for a change of political direction. The upsurge in trade union struggles and strikes, the widespread feeling of discontent among the population, and many ad hoc social initiatives like the protests against the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm in June 2007, are a good start. Die LINKE must initiate projects that are clearly defined, enjoy broad majority support, and are developed jointly with others. They must be projects aimed at more social justice and democracy, socio-ecological transformation, and an active peace policy while also being attractive for various social strata. To do this, Die LINKE must implement radical but realistic politics by
    • waging the struggle for hegemony from a minority position, in order to create social majorities;
    • demanding social, democratic and ecological reforms that will bring about a lasting change in power and property relations;
    • developing and implementing projects for participatory democracy; and
    • operating from its social base to develop long-term projects that would start now but go beyond the present state of society, such as minimum wage, basic insurance, basic income, and reduction of working hours. The long-term projects of a centre-left project must aim at remaking the public sector and gaining control over capital. This includes the rolling back of financial-market capitalism, renewing and expanding the public sector, achieving full employment on the basis of new and different concepts of productivity and growth, top-down redistribution, a shift from the private to the public sphere, an ecological revolution, and the social and peace-oriented reform of the European Union. 
    It needs clear statements of intent concerning the further development and concrete underpinning of the main points of its programme, particularly in the fields of employment, economics, and social policy. To do this, however, it must mobilise the potential of its various currents by leading them out of the phase of innerparty power struggles for political hegemony within Die LINKE towards constructive co-operation combined with the development of a left culture that lives up to its democratic and emancipatory ideals.
    There are majorities in Germany for a democratic, socio-ecological policy; there are historically new pluralist networks of social and political forces that favour such a change of direction and there is a party – Die LINKE. These are still only the preliminary conditions for a new politics. They will not be enough in themselves. But for the first time since 1990 there is the chance for a left democratic upsurge in Germany.

    Cornelia Hildebrandt  


    1 Oskar Niedermayer (2007). Parteimitglieder in Deutschland: Version 2007. Arbeitshefte aus dem Otto-Stammer-Zentrum, Nr. 11. Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin 2007, www.polwiss.fu-berlin.de/osz/dokumente/PDF/ AHOSZ11.pdf. p. 15

    2 Oskar Niedermayer ibid., p.16

    3 Tim Spier p. 59

    4 Michael Brie: Segeln gegen den Wind. Bedingungen eines politischen Richtungswechsels in Deutschland [Sailing Against the Wind. Conditions for a Political Change of Direction in Germany]. In: DIE LINKE. Wohin verändert sie die Republik [Die LINKE. Whither the Republic?]. p. 269

    5 Ingar Solty: Transformation des Deutschen Parteiensystems und europäische historische Verantwortung der Linkspartei. In: Das Argument, Heft 271/2007, p. 343. Enlarged English version Ingar Solty: The Historic Breakthrough of Germany’s LEFT Party, Socialism and Democracy vol. 22, no. 1 (March 2008) (see www.sdonline.org), p. 2. 

    6 ADR Tagesschau\Infratest dimap – ARD DeutschlandTREND Februar 2008.htm. 28.2.2008