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Germany’s Groundhog Day

Fabio De Masi

Die Linke MP Fabio de Masi on Germany’s coalition negotiations, the revolt in the SPD, and what it all means for the country’s left.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel squares off against the SPD's Martin Schulz in a pre-election debate. Herbert Sachs / DPA

Interview by
Julia Damphouse

Four months after Germany’s federal election, the eurozone’s most powerful state remains without a government. In September, both members of its grand coalition — Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) — lost a significant numbers of seats. This opened a path of increased political influence for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Initially the SPD responded to these results by insisting it would not govern with the center-right again. But, as the months have worn on, and other coalition formations have fallen by the wayside, that determination has waned. Now the grand coalition (known as GroKo, short for Große Koalition) is back on the table, with an SPD convention voting narrowly to open negotiations.

But this time around there appears to be significant resistance within the party to a deal, with its youth wing JUSOS leading a campaign to reject it. Their cause has been boosted by the latest polls in Germany, which show the SPD falling even farther and only four points ahead of the far-right.

So what does all this mean for the German left? And how can Die Linke, itself coming to terms with a disappointing election result, respond to the situation? Jacobin’s Julia Damphouse talks to Die Linke MP Fabio de Masi about the latest developments.

Towards Coalition

JD

English-language coverage has been sparse since Germany’s election in September, could you give an overview of what has happened particularly with respect to coalition talks?

FD

The first noticeable election result was the Alternative for Germany finishing strongly on 13 percent. There was no clear-cut majority for Angela Merkel, so she attempted to form a “Jamaica” coalition between her conservative Christian Democratic Union, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens. The name comes from their combined colors: black, yellow, and green respectively. After nearly a month of negotiations, the FDP decided to pull out of negotiations. My impression was that they wanted to use their leverage at the negotiating table to get Merkel to step down. Coming out strongly against Merkel allowed them to appeal to traditional right-wing voters that have moved towards the AfD.

While these negotiations were ongoing, Martin Schulz, the chairman of the Social Democrats (SPD), ruled out re-entering government in a new grand coalition. Instead, he wanted to renew the position of social democracy as the official opposition. But now that the possibility of a Jamaica coalition is off the table, the only other viable arrangement is a grand coalition. Last weekend the SPD held a national congress, and there a slim majority of delegates, 56 percent, voted to go ahead with coalition negotiations with the CDU.

There are three basic reasons advanced by those in the SPD who support entering coalition negotiations. First is that they are scared not entering negations will mean snap elections, likely in April, which will see the SPD get an even worse result than their historically-low 20 percent in September. Party functionaries are worried, rightly but cynically, that they will lose their jobs. Second, they know that not entering government will mean formerly high-ranking ministers will be just regular members of parliament again. Third, they think that Merkel’s back is against the wall, that the CDU will be desperate to form a governing coalition and that the SPD will be able to dictate the terms of the agreement in their favor.

There have been some advance talks where possible terms of the coalition agreement were discussed. It doesn’t seem as though the Social Democrats will gain much of substance. One area they are pursuing is stabilizing the pension level at 48 percent of the average income a worker earns during their work-life. It was previously 53 percent under a conservative government and, in fact, the SPD were responsible for the policies which cut it in the first place.

But, before any agreement can be made, the question of whether the SPD will enter another grand coalition will be put to a vote of the whole party membership. The youth wing of the SPD (JUSOS) has launched a campaign to encourage people opposed to a grand coalition to join the party and vote against the coalition talks.

JD

JUSOS’s campaign has been compared to Momentum, the movement around Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party. Does the comparison have merit?

FD

I don’t think it’s a valid comparison. First of all, there is no Corbyn in the SPD. Corbyn’s leadership campaign represented a real prospect of drastically changing the political direction of one of the most neoliberal social-democratic parties in Europe. Whereas here, the aim is simply to fend off another grand coalition. That being said, despite the difference in scope, this is one of the most intense internal debates within German social democracy in years. It’s not something to ignore, but the whole campaign against a grand coalition lacks a political program. That is their weak point.

JD

So the #NoGroKo campaign is not Momentum. But is there any possibility that the SPD might swing to the left in the future?

FD

The only way the SPD could move left was if it had a political project being articulated by those in the SPD who oppose the politics of the previous grand coalitions. It’s not enough to say “no GroKo,” there must be a political agenda. The left wing of social democracy has not voiced strong criticism on concrete programmatic grounds. They talk sometimes about tax justice, for example, but there is little critical engagement with the policies of the European Union and Germany’s role within it.

That is not to say there isn’t a desire for more radical positions. Many of the rank-and-file members of the party support Die Linke policies, but there is no credible figure right now within the SPD who can represent a more left-wing program. There are well-intentioned people like the leader of the party’s youth, Kevin Kühnert, who warns against the party’s self-destruction via a new grand coalition, but he does not articulate a more positive vision of what the SPD should look like. This conversation has yet to take place.

JD

In September’s election the AfD came third in terms of seats. If there was another grand coalition, they would become the official opposition. Some see this as the strongest reason for the SPD to stay out. But if they do, are we doomed to four years of debate on the AfD’s terms?

FD

The rise of the AfD is the result of the apparent lack of alternatives in German politics. Their name is no coincidence. But they aren’t a real alternative on most grounds, they are not only racist but against workers’ rights and in favor of tax cuts for the rich. They’re clever, however, and try to align themselves with older and more isolated segments of Germany’s de-industrialized workforce. The policies of Germany’s center-right and center-left parties has laid the groundwork for the kind of social unrest that the AfD capitalizes on. Therefore, the argument that the SPD should stay out of government in order to prevent the AfD from being the opposition is not enough. They will still be seen as the alternative until the SPD or Die Linke are able to challenge the political establishment.

When Schulz was first elected leader of the SPD, he hinted at reversing some of the labor market reforms that his party introduced with the Agenda 2010. Even vaguely gesturing in this direction caused the party’s polling to go up by nearly 10 percent. However, the SPD stayed in government instead of using a potential majority with Die Linke and the Greens in the last parliament to correct some of their past mistakes, cause snap elections and set the agenda. Hence, the Schulz hype was only temporary. There is a substantial section of voters that the SPD could tap into, who are disappointed, but who also have unfortunately not become Die Linke voters.

Left Opposition

JD

Why has Die Linke failed to pick up more of the disaffected former SPD voters?

FD

Some of the voters, while in favor of our demands on things like pension reforms and ending German military presence abroad, don’t believe that we have the capacity to actually enact these policies. In the UK, people rallied around Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party because there was the prospect of changing the direction of the country. Die Linke lacks that capacity. And from Sahra Wagenknecht to Katja Kipping there exists a range of very different concepts of political strategy for the party. We must accept that we lost some of our popular appeal as anti-establishment force to the AfD. However, another grand coalition could lead to the implosion of the SPD. The question would then become, are we able to attract those who become even further disillusioned?

JD

Last time you spoke with Jacobin, you mentioned Sahra Wagenknecht’s interest in forming a left-wing populist movement inspired by Mélenchon’s France Insoumise. Could something like this present a new opportunity for the Left in Germany?

FD

Sahra Wagenknecht is right with two observations. The first is that over the past decade, there has been a shift of voters away from the parties of the Left. Around the turn of the millennium, the combined votes of Die Linke, the SPD, and the Greens consistently constituted a majority. However, this majority was never utilized, and now, even if we were to still consider the Greens to be a left force, these three parties could no longer form a majority in government.

Second, the fact that Die Linke has not been able to win over millions of disaffected former SPD voters, and or their members, shows that some kind of change in strategy is needed in order for the party to be seen as a credible alternative. The question is, are we, Die Linke or the Left in general, in a position to create a forum to talk about a left-wing renewal in Germany without giving up Die Linke as the only successful left-of-center party in Germany in decades?

I believe Sahra Wagenknecht wanted to test the water, to see if she could send a signal to members of the SPD as the former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine had done before. Her intention was to signal that discussions about the future of the German left don’t necessarily have to take place only within the parameters of Die Linke. This doesn’t mean that she wants to form a new party, but instead that she understands that SPD members may not want to switch over to a different party where they are unfamiliar with the internal dynamics, and are unsure if they are welcome.

JD

What are the prospects for Die Linke in the near future?

FD

Die Linke has the chance to tap into the frustration felt by the German public in general over the chaos and uncertainty of these coalition negotiations. We can win people by showing that we remain focused on the bread-and-butter issues that affect people’s lives. We are most successful when we have clear stances on the issues of housing, social services, workplace protections and pensions.

But we have our own internal problems. There are power struggles within the party leadership. Some people voice concerns about the changing core voting demographic of the party, which is becoming younger, more urban, and more academic. And while we certainly welcome young people, we should be concerned about losing voters among the unemployed, and among more traditionally employed trade union members.

We are in a period with a massive amount of disillusionment with politics in Germany. In the past, Die Linke has tried to convince people that if they had been voting for us, their lives would change for the better. Instead we need to say it’s not enough to just vote for a party. Positive left politics requires people to pick up the fight in their daily life, like attacks on workers’ rights, and underfunding of public services. What we can learn from Momentum is to go out onto the street and to be more involved in day-to-day campaigns that effect people’s lives. We need a change in political culture.