Despite its recent electoral successes, the Left Party's position in the German party system is more fragile that it may at first appear. The Left Party gained support in 2005 largely on account of dissatisfaction with other parties and not because masses of voters were flocking to its (nominally socialist) cause. Not even a majority from within its own supporter base thought it possessed "significant problem solving competences." Rather, much of the Left Party's political discourse is based on negative dismissals of much that it sees—in policy terms—before it. We discuss the Left Party's political development through the prism of populist politics. After outlining what we understand populism to mean, we analyze the Left Party's programmatic stances and political strategy within the context of this framework. Although populism is certainly not the sole preserve of the Left Party, it clearly excels in using populist tools to make political headway. We conclude by discussing the ramifications that this has for German party politics in general and for the Social Democratic Party in particular.
Dan Hough and Michael Koß
Populist Competitors in Eastern Germany
In the 2017 German Federal Election. The Left Party (Die Linke, or LP) saw its vote share in eastern Germany seriously erode. The main culprit behind the LP’s losses was the Alternative for Germany (AfD): 430,000 voters who cast their ballots for the LP in 2013 voted for the AfD in 2017. Why was this the case? This article suggests that the AfD in 2017 was able to attract protest voters, largely in eastern Germany, dissatisfied with the state of democracy and the political establishment in Germany who once voted for the LP. The LP and AfD have become eastern German populist competitors.
Jonathan Olsen and Dan Hough
This article analyses the development of Left Party/PDS-SPD coalitions in the eastern German Länder. It develops an explanatory framework based on attempts to understand how red-green coalitions came into being in the 1990s. The article concludes that red-red coalitions emerge when four basic criteria are fulfilled: the SPD has few other viable potential coalition options and believes it can gain in strategic terms; the ideological distance between the Left Party/PDS and SPD is small; and the personal relationships between Land-level leaders are good. The paper also argues that the heterogeneity of the Left Party/PDS is likely to ensure that Land-specific solutions to Land-specific coalition dilemmas are very likely to remain of significance in the future.
In mainstream analyses of the German political system, the emergence of the Left Party (Die Linke) is presented as an unexpected consequence of German unification and as an indication of the existence of an East-West divide. This view is for the most part based on the idea that German unification is a process of political integration of the East into the West. Such an understanding, however, downplays the long-term developments in the German party system. This article examines the emergence of the Left Party in light of both the long-term developmental tendencies of the German party system and findings from comparative studies among other West European countries. The article concludes that the main reason for the current political stalemate is the incapability of the postwar Volksparteien to respond to changes in political space and action. Based on evidence from comparative studies, the article also suggests a pragmatic rethinking especially in the SPD is necessary in dealings with the Left Party.
James L. Newell
In 2002, the opposition parties found themselves in a radically new
politico-strategic position as compared to the past. It was new in two
major ways. First, the previous year’s election outcome had represented
the further consolidation of a predominantly bi-polar dynamic
to party competition and had made it seem likely that the new government’s
stability would be greater than that of any other since
World War II. This presented a unique opportunity to the parties of
opposition, for typically in such circumstances, not only are governing
parties under pressure to carry through the policies on which they
have been elected, but the fortunes of each one of them individually
are closely bound to the success or failure of the government as a
whole. This means that they are vulnerable to opposition attack to a
degree that governing parties were not under the “First Republic,”
when at least the smaller parties were often able to avoid the electoral
consequences of unpopular measures, simply because of the
absence of any possibility of alternation.
The recent federal elections refuted a number of established hypotheses on the development of the German party system and contradicted the electoral strategies of nearly all parties involved. The outcome was neither a further fragmentation of the parliamentary landscape nor the unavoidable establishment of a grand coalition. On the contrary, in most cases, the respective parties failed as a result of their own mistakes in selecting adequate campaign issues, strategies and/or candidates. Aside from party-specific questions, such as the trajectories of both the AfD and the FDP, the future of the German party system seems largely dependent on the relationships between the three left-of-center parties at the federal level.
Jeffrey J. Anderson
Twenty years after all the excitement, Germans seem to be genuinely of two conflicting minds about unification. One is characterized by awe over the accomplishments of 1989-1990, the other by disappointment and even bitterness over unfulfilled ambitions and promises. These contrasting interpretations and assessments of unification are fluid, but surface repeatedly in the quality print media. This chapter examines the recurring themes, interpretations, and narratives about unification twenty years on, and seeks to trace the interconnections between the social, economic, and political dimensions of unification. As such, these contemporary printed narratives can tell us a great deal about how a people views its recent past, what its priorities are, and how it is facing the future. The analysis reveals that public discourse on unification twenty years after the fact resembles a blind spot—look straight at it, and it disappears, replaced by blank spot—a seemingly irreducible gap between East and West. Avert one's gaze, and the spot fills in, almost seamlessly.
Politics and Power after the 2017 Bundestag Election
Although it has not been that long since the articles of the previous special issue devoted to the 2017 Bundestag election and its aftermath have been published, the political situation in Germany appears to have stabilized. After almost six months without a new government, German politics has sunk back into a kind of late-Merkel era normality. Public opinion polls continue to show that the CDU/CSU is slightly above its election outcome, the SPD is still down in the 17–18 percent range, the FDP has lost about 2 percent of its support, while the AfD, Greens and Left Party are up 1–2 percent.
William E. Paterson and James Sloam
The 2009 German federal election marked a devastating defeat for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The debacle led some commentators to speculate about the end of the SPD as a “catch-all party“ and—given the recent poor performance of center-left parties across Europe—“the end of social democracy.“ In this article, we contextualize the result of the 2009 Bundestag election within the settings of German party politics and European social democracy, and show how the electoral disaster for the SPD can be explained by broad, long-term political developments. We nevertheless argue that the German Social Democrat's defeat in 2009 provides an opportunity for renewal at a time when the governing Conservative-Liberal coalition—already in disarray—must take some tough decisions with regard to the resource crunch in German public finances.
The result of the 2005 Bundestag election provoked difficult questions concerning the political positioning of the SPD. Should the Social Democrats negate the Schröder government's Agenda 2010 reforms in order to regain voters from the Left and envisage a government coalition with the Left Party, even though this party has been portrayed as "unfit to govern"? Or should the SPD stick to the center, at the risk of losing even more voters to its leftist competitor? Based on a theoretical concept of different party goals (vote, office, policy, and democracy-seeking) and strategic party behavior, this article explains why the SPD did not succeed in establishing a promising strategy with regard to these questions. This failure is caused mainly by the party's internal divisions and its severe leadership problems. In addition, the structure of German party competition and the institutions of federalism make it even more difficult to handle these problems with success.