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Germany

Things to know about Germany's Left party

Germany's socialist Left party is the biggest of the "small parties" represented in the Bundestag - but the least likely to be part of a governing coalition. So what are the others so afraid of?

Germany's most important socialist party is always caught in a paradox - though well-established electorally across the country and a fixture in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, the Left party (called Die Linke in German) is still treated as a pariah by the country's other political parties.

That's partly because the Left's most natural coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is in perpetual dither-mode about a possible alliance. At a regional level, the SPD has worked more or less in harmony with the Left in many state governments, but at a national level, the Social Democrats still get cold feet about the Left's intransigence on certain points of foreign military policy.

And yet, with a few weeks to go before Germany's big national elections, the Left party is still holding its own in opinion polls as the biggest of Germany's "small parties." With a poll average of 10 percent at the start of August, it is at least one point above its rivals - the environmentalist Greens, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

History - you have nothing to lose but your acronyms

The Left's ambiguous, and slightly bewildering, history is another reason why other parties keep their distance. The fact that some of the Left's members were once part of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which ran the East German dictatorship, still puts many German voters off - especially older ones.

Sahra Wagenknecht (picture alliance/dpa/P. Steffen)

Wagenknecht is leading the Left into an election for the first time

The SED mutated into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and established itself as a quasi-communist opposition party throughout the 1990s. It fed off the disenchantment in eastern Germany as many formerly state-owned industries were privatized without any tangible benefit to the economy in the "new" German states.

But while in its nascent years it was mainly an anti-capitalist protest party, the PDS, and later the Left, also gained real political responsibility at the state level - joining coalition governments with the SPD in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and later, as the Left, in Brandenburg. For that reason, the party claims mainstream status in eastern Germany today, and has even led the government of Thuringia, under state premier Bodo Ramelow, since 2014.

But that is only half of the Left's story. In western Germany, the PDS enjoyed a significant boost in 2004 when a group of disgruntled SPD members and trade unionists, sick of what they saw as the increasingly neoliberal bent of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, split from the party and founded the awkwardly-named Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG).

The PDS, which at the time went under the equally unwieldy name The Left Party.PDS, formed an electoral alliance with the WASG at the 2005 general election, and entered the Bundestag easily with 8.7 percent of the vote - more than double what the PDS had managed alone in 2002.

The east and west socialists gave up their acronyms in 2007, when it formally fused to create the Left party. That alliance was driven to no small extent by the firebrand leader Oskar Lafontaine, the ex-SPD man from western Germany who had dramatically abandoned the finance minister role under Schröder in 1999. Lafontaine and SED veteran Gregor Gysi (a hugely popular figure in eastern Germany), have been the party's dominant figures in the Left party, though both have now withdrawn from frontline politics in recent years.

Left party leader Dietmar Bartsch (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig)

Dietmar Bartsch believes the Left can do it better

Positions - the ghost of communism

The Left party is internally divided. There are radical members who fantasize about the end of the capitalist economic order, and, for a time, these elements meant that the party was under surveillance by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz.

But more moderate members believe the Left's purpose is just to crop capitalism's neoliberal excesses - mainly through market regulation and a social welfare system that isn't based on punitive sanctions. Broadly, these two branches are reflected in Left's two election candidates - Sahra Wagenknecht, a fixture on German political talk shows, is the occasionally populist firebrand, while Dietmar Bartsch is the moderate conciliator.

Here are the party's key manifesto pledges in a nutshell:

- The minimum wage will be raised to 12 euros ($14) an hour.

- Minijobs, which leave many people still dependent on state benefits, will be scrapped.

- State pensions will be raised to 53 percent of the average national income. This is significantly higher than the 48 percent being pledged by the SPD. Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) will not commit to maintaining the current level.

- The sanctions-based unemployment benefit system, called Hartz IV, will be replaced by a minimum guaranteed safety net of 1,050 euros a month.

- A special tax will be introduced on fortunes of over 1 million euros to fund infrastructure and schools.

- The health care system will become egalitarian. All contributions will be fixed at 12 percent of income, and everyone will be guaranteed the same care. Glasses and new teeth will be free.

- Investment in residential property as financial speculation will be banned, while 250,000 affordable homes will be built every year.

- All German soldiers will be withdrawn from foreign missions. This is seen as the major sticking point for a coalition with the SPD.

- All weapons exports are to be banned. 

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