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What right and left mean in the German election

Jefferson Chase
August 9, 2021

In recent years Angela Merkel and the CDU have moved away from conservative positions and the SPD has disenchanted working class voters. In the German election the difference between right and left has become blurred.

Traffic sign showing left and right
What do right and left mean in German politics?Image: picture alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Six parties are represented in the German parliament: the center-right CDU-CSU, the center-left SPD, the right-wing AfD, the Left party, the leftist Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).  How comfortably can the left-right schema be applied to this political spectrum?

And do Germans mean the same things by right and left as, for instance, Americans do? The meaning of the terms, which originated in the French Revolution of 1789, has changed throughout the ages and varies from culture to culture.

And in Germany, they have been through another significant paradigm shift. Two causes for this development seem particularly prominent: the Social Democratic drift of Germany's conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the resurgence of populist nationalism in many countries. Those and other factors make it increasingly difficult to speak of any consistent right- or left-wing outlooks, as a number of examples suggest.

Size of parliamentary parties in the current Bundestag

Nationalism and NATO

Traditionally, the conservative CDU-CSU has been both the most nationalist mainstream political party and the one that supports the tightest connections with NATO. For a long time, conservatives rejected the notion of Germany as a country that sought to attract and integrate immigrants. That largely changed with Merkel. Under her leadership, the conservatives not only adopted a welcoming stance toward refugees but also come to see immigration as crucial to Germany's future — even if a slight majority still resists the idea of dual citizenship and there is still heavy party infighting on specific immigration policies.

That shift opened up political space in the last decade for the nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose members are hostile not just to refugees but to immigration in general. "Germany for Germans" is the motto, and AfD leaders have frequently used racist language. 

In reaction to then-President Donald Trump's questioning the value of NATO for the US, the SPD and the Greens joined the conservatives in supporting the military alliance — not exactly a left-wing position traditionally. The Left party, which has its origins in the ruling Socialist Unity Party of formerly Communist East Germany, is anti-NATO and supportive of Russia, whereas the SPD and the Greens are highly critical of Vladimir Putin.

The ostensibly far-right AfD wants to reduce NATO to a purely defensive alliance and withdraw German troops stationed abroad. And like Trump, it has a lot of time for Putin - the party platform calls for Russia to become a "friend" to Germany in the same sense as the US. Polls indicate that the party is popular among immigrants to Germany from Russia (the so-called "Russian Germans") — another indication that the right-left foreign policy split from the Cold War is being erased.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas checking his watch at  a NATO meeting in 2021
The German political parties' divisions over NATO are disappearingImage: Virginia Mayo/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The European Union and trade agreements

The split on policy toward the EU runs not between right and left but between the center and the extremes. While the conservatives, the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP are firm supporters of the European bloc, the AfD openly flirts with the idea of Germany leaving both the EU and the euro, and the Left party's attitude is ambivalent. Left party leaders have cast Brexit as the result of social inequities within the EU and have argued for drastic revisions to the EU treaty.

The business-friendly CDU-CSU and FDP came out in favor of international trade agreements like TTIP and CETA. What fit in less well with traditional categories was the fact that the AfD, the Left party, and the Greens opposed them, as did Trump, albeit for wildly varying reasons.

The economy and fiscal policy

This is one area where the traditional understanding of right and left still largely seem to apply. Generally speaking, the CDU-CSU and the FDP are for low taxes and fiscal austerity and against government regulations on business, while the SPD, the Greens, and the Left party favor a government that actively seeks to redistribute wealth. On the whole, even conservative German tax policies would be considered left-wing in the US, where distrust of government spending runs high.

The AfD's economic policies are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the party supports traditional right-wing policies like hostility to state subsidies, upper limits on income taxes, and balanced budgets, but they also oppose privatization of government properties and would introduce independent tests of products to hinder companies from engineering obsolescence. 

Surveillance cameras on a rooftop
Surveillance is another issue that splits German parties along unfamiliar linesImage: imago/S. Schellhorn

Security and personal liberty

The AfD supports law-and-order positions familiar from the US straight across the board. The CDU-CSU wants to bolster the police and the intelligence services in the interest of fighting terrorism, while the Left and the Greens oppose increased state surveillance. The SPD is rather ambiguous on the issue — perhaps because as the junior member of the governing grand coalition, it has gone along with traditionally conservative law-and-order measures.

The great anomaly, at least in comparison with the American political landscape, is the FDP, also known as the Liberals. Germans don't use the word as a somewhat pejorative synonym for the (far) left, but rather to indicate strong support for both political and economic individual liberties. Thus, a "liberal" in Germany has more in common with a libertarian than, say, Bernie Sanders.

Elites and social outsiders

The traditional equation here is that right-wing parties defend the interests of established elites while left-wing ones act as advocates for the disadvantaged. Those categories used to be defined first and foremost by class. But the populists have staked a claim to being the exclusive spokespeople for the proverbial ordinary people, excoriating even the advocates of the disadvantaged as elite beneficiaries of a corrupt system. Here, too, the split is less between right and left than between established political forces and newcomers.

Anti-elitist rhetoric is omnipresent in the AfD. Indeed it is arguably the party's raison d'etre. The Left party also occasionally rails against elites, as do some figures in the SPD, whereas the Greens tend not to.

Environment and energy

In 2021, environmental policy is a far larger campaign issue than ever before, with the climate crisis advancing rapidly and extreme weather events becoming much more frequent, such as this summer's devastating floods in Germany and wildfires in several European countries.

Public awareness of climate change, driven in recent years through the Fridays for Future campaign and the global climate movement, has driven voters to ask tougher questions of candidates and demand more of them.

These are the bread-and-butter issues of the Green party, of course, but the historic right-left divide on environmental and energy issues is just that — a thing of the past. Merkel's decision in 2011 to advocate the discontinuation of nuclear power in Germany aligned the conservatives with positions usually associated with the left.

That's opened up political room for other parties. The AfD wants to completely reverse Germany's energy policies, extending the operational lives of the country's nuclear power plants and doing away with government incentives for renewable energy sources. The FDP also wants to overturn Germany's Renewable Energy Law. The SPD and the Left support Germany's current energy policy, although it is not a top priority for either party. 

Unsurprisingly, the Greens have been quick to address climate-related topics of late, issuing a plan to prevent flood disasters and mitigate damage in the future, and are perceived to be more competent leaders on environmental challenges than the CDU/CSU and the SPD, which have taken a more reactive approach to solving the climate crisis while in government.

This is a slightly modified version of an article published at the time o Germany's previous general election.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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