In December last year, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) elected a new, moderately left-wing leadership. This rare shift came in the wake of a chain of humiliating electoral defeats and a widespread sense that something had to change if the party were to survive — let alone remain a major political force. In a surprise turn for the country’s oldest political party, new co-chairs Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans won a slim majority against the party establishment after pledging to shift course and return to the kinds of left-of-center policies it pursued well into the 1990s. They called for higher taxes, deeper European integration, and increased transparency and inner-party democracy to encourage grassroots activity.
With the SPD polling at record lows after over a decade as the junior partner in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), no one expected Esken and Walter-Borjans to resurrect its fortunes overnight. Neither the new leadership nor the wider membership was keen to leave the grand coalition with Merkel immediately, fearing that fresh elections would weaken the party even further. Crucially, however, they promised there would be no return to this coalition after the 2021 federal election — and strongly implied that a “red-red-green” government between themselves, the Greens, and Die Linke, along the lines of current city administration in Berlin, was their preferred option.
These statements represented the furthest an SPD leader had gone in terms of calling for a government of the Left on the national level — and understandably caused cautious excitement among German progressives of all stripes. This was particularly true of the more pragmatic currents of its left-wing rival, Die Linke, which has struggled to define its role in the political landscape and appears increasingly stagnant, with both membership as well as polling numbers seemingly frozen in place. A center-left majority in parliament and a willing SPD, many reasoned, could open the door to newfound political relevance and, perhaps, the chance to make concrete policy changes in Germany and perhaps even Europe as a whole. But now such optimism has been severely held in check.
Not So Fast
Perhaps it was simply too good to be true. The limited and hesitant nature of the SPD’s leftward pivot was apparent from the outset, but became all the more blatant in mid-August, when Esken and Walter-Borjans announced that the party leadership had voted unanimously to select Olaf Scholz — the very man they defeated in last December’s leadership contest — as the SPD’s designated chancellor candidate for the 2021 elections.
Though reactions were mixed, a number of figures on the SPD’s left wing interpreted Scholz’s anointment as a stab in the back. Scholz was once associated with the party’s radical left as a rising star in the SPD youth organization, the Young Socialists. But today, the former mayor of Hamburg and sitting finance minister in Merkel’s cabinet is generally seen as a stalwart of the right wing and a representative of neoliberal orthodoxy. Indeed, many still remember Scholz as a forceful proponent of Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 social security cuts in the early 2000s. During his time as Hamburg’s mayor, he developed a reputation as a domineering leader who tolerated little dissent among the ranks, and was considered instrumental in the police riot against peaceful demonstrators during the G20 Summit in Hamburg three years ago. If his narrow defeat at the hands of the membership last December was widely seen as a victory for the forces of renewal in the SPD, this makes his appointment all the more disillusioning for those seeking to take the party in a different direction.
That Scholz is no standard-bearer for the Left is beyond doubt. Nevertheless, the left wing has also failed to put forward an alternative, and it is hard to imagine who in the party has the necessary stature to have challenged him. Supporters point to Scholz’s strong name recognition and approval ratings, which have both gone up in recent months as the governing coalition pumps billions into the economy to curb the worst recession since World War II. This, combined with the fact that the ranks of SPD celebrities have been decimated by a cascade of electoral defeats in the last two decades, means that there are few big names left to choose from. Scholz is one of the last SPD leaders whose electoral record is largely positive — he handily won reelection in 2015 with 47 percent of the vote.
The more tactically inclined among the SPD’s left wing argue for a kind of triangulation strategy: as a middle-of-the-road figure with a proven ability to win elections, they reason, Scholz will expand the SPD’s electoral base and provide the necessary bump to lead a red-red-green coalition. Pivoting to the left would simply cannibalize the existing electorate around Die Linke. Better to win the election from the center, the argument goes, while the more left-inclined Esken and Walter-Borjans — along with putative coalition partners Die Linke — will push the party to the left over the medium term.
Moreover (and here they may really have a point), Scholz’s neoliberal record since the late 1990s was very much in line with the zeitgeist at the time, when then chancellor Schröder restructured Germany’s welfare state to impose harsh penalties on the unemployed and Angela Merkel ran for chancellor calling for partial privatization of the health care system. Scholz may have been more than willing to go along with this pivot to the right, but he was part of an international trend that has since abated — and there is no reason to assume he would automatically return to such policies if he were to lead a center-left government.
Since the early 2000s reforms, German unemployment numbers have cratered, tax revenues are through the roof, and the experience of the 2008–9 financial crash and the most recent coronavirus crisis have shattered taboos about deficit spending and neo-Keynesian economic policies. As finance minister, Scholz is now calling for 100 billion euros in new debt next year, as Germany seeks to Europeanize its comparatively Keynesian approach and break with the rest of the “Frugal Five” — the northern European states thus far reluctant to back massive loans to support their southern neighbors. For some observers at least, the neoliberal SPD is dead and buried — allowing the Left to use Scholz, despite the many skeletons in his closet, to lead Social Democracy back into the chancellor’s office.
Easier Said Than Done
Though a red-red-green coalition led by a Scholz facing pressure from the Left is certainly the most desirable outcome of the 2021 federal election, there are reasons to doubt its plausibility. The first, and perhaps insurmountable stumbling block is red-red-green’s mediocre polling numbers. Though the parties of the center-left enjoyed slim parliamentary majorities throughout the first decade of this century, their combined polling numbers have hovered around 40 percent for years with little sign of improving.
Scholz’s nomination appeared to give the SPD a slight bump in the polls — briefly knocking the party up to 18 percent, its best result in months, but still far from the 30 percent the new co-chairs initially declared as their goal last December, and miles behind Merkel’s CDU, which continues to poll in the high 30s. Die Linke appears stuck at 7 percent, while the Greens have polled at 20 percent for months. If elections were held tomorrow, the center-left would be hard-pressed to form a majority, and the Greens may find themselves tempted to govern with the CDU instead.
The first test of red-red-green’s strength, the mid-September council elections in the industrial heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia, was anything but encouraging for those hoping for a progressive coalition next fall. The SPD’s result was one of its worst in postwar history, but still ahead of the disastrous showing in last year’s European elections, prompting some party luminaries to interpret the vote as a victory. Die Linke, which would presumably do well in a state that traditionally leans left, tumbled to an alarming 3.8 percent, its worst result in the state in over a decade. The parties of red-red-green, it would appear, have their work cut out for them.
Yet even if the elections were to deliver a center-left majority, it is far from clear whether the Greens or the SPD under Olaf Scholz would be interested in governing from the left together with Die Linke in the first place. Though they have benefitted from the dynamic generated by the Fridays For Future mobilizations, the Greens remain hesitant to position themselves in any specific political camp. They govern in a hodgepodge of state coalitions, sometimes with the CDU, and the party’s co-chairs have flirted with the idea of launching such a coalition on the national level in recent weeks. Scholz, for his part, expressed skepticism about governing with Die Linke only one day after his candidacy was announced and has maintained his distance since.
We Are the 7 Percent?
This presents a considerable challenge for Die Linke. Since its founding in the mid-2000s, this fusion of ex-Communists in the East and ex-Social Democrats, Trotskyists, and other radical leftists in the West has managed to consolidate itself as a seemingly permanent fixture on the German party landscape — with all of the institutional benefits that brings. But after eight years under the leadership of Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping, who are set to step down at the end of the month, Die Linke can point to few concrete political successes. Perhaps for this reason, seemingly all currents except for the furthest-left factions have more or less openly declared their support for a red-red-green government in 2021.
This strategic convergence between rival currents in the party has been a long time coming. Traditionally divided between pragmatic reformers in the East, where it has served in several state-level coalitions and currently heads the government in Thuringia, and oppositional, protest-oriented factions in the West, recent years have witnessed the emergence of what is euphemistically referred to as a “horseshoe” alliance between supporters of (former) parliamentary co-speakers Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch against the party leadership around Riexinger and Kipping. Though the conflict has abated to some extent since Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen project turned out to be a flop, the perception that the party is constantly at war with itself has no doubt hampered its ability to move ahead in the polls and blocks it from establishing a more coherent profile.
The party congress scheduled for October 30 to November 1 appears set to elect rising party stars Janine Wissler of Hesse and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow of Thuringia as the new co-chairs. Both are young, talented politicians, and as a duo they bridge the gaps between regions and currents. Wissler comes from the West and once belonged to a Trotskyist group, but has spent over a decade in the Hessian state parliament and established herself as a skilled rhetorician and forceful advocate for social movements. Hennig-Wellsow hails from Erfurt, one of Die Linke’s electoral strongholds, and has served as speaker of the Thuringian state parliament and chair of the state party since it formed a governing coalition there in 2014. The fact that they are running for the leadership unopposed is an encouraging sign that, if nothing else, the ugly public spats of recent years will not reemerge before elections next fall.
At the end of the day, however, the new co-chairs will face the same dilemma that has confronted Die Linke since its inception: How to move from principled opposition to an effective government of the Left and turn at least parts of its political platform into government policy?
The party has never been in a position to answer this question in most of the country, as its election results are far too marginal to play a role in state politics. In states where it has been strong enough to form or at least join a government, results are mixed. The Die Linke–led government in Thuringia has introduced some commendable reforms, but in policy terms is barely distinguishable from a traditional social-democratic administration. In Berlin, some would argue, the introduction of a five-year rent cap with strong Die Linke support speaks to the difference a left-wing party in government can make. But as commendable as it is, even the rent cap represents a temporary, defensive measure in the face of skyrocketing housing prices rather than the kind of “non-reformist reform” that could take housing out of the private sector or at least prevent the city’s ongoing corporate takeover.
That said, it is one thing to govern in one of Germany’s poorest states, wracked by outward migration and weak public infrastructure, and quite another to govern Germany as a whole, the largest member of the European Union with the ability to spend almost limitlessly should it decide to. Whereas previous left governments in Europe such as the Syriza-led coalition in Greece faced institutional blackmail and immense pressure from the EU from the outset, a German red-red-green government would theoretically have much more room to maneuver. It could take on issues like abolishing the low-wage sector, or follow the center-left government in Finland’s lead by shortening the workweek, along with other measures that shift the balance of forces in society toward workers. Perhaps most importantly, it would remove Berlin as the single greatest factor preventing structural reforms to the EU and thus improve the fortunes of the European Left as a whole.
As it stands, such an outcome in the 2021 general election appears unlikely. Absent a major shift in the SPD’s political momentum or an unexpected resurgence of the populist right, the CDU and the Greens will emerge the winners of the contest and probably form a government by November of next year. This would in turn put the onus on Die Linke and the SPD to begin serving as an effective opposition. This would, at least, give them a chance to revive the fortunes of the German Left, which Europe so badly needs.