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The Left Party's election debacle: a well deserved disaster

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Even before September 26, it was certain that the Left Party, DIE LINKE, would lose votes and seats. For months, polls had shown it at about 6 percent, but the result was even worse, just 4.9 percent. The party lost more than 2 million votes, almost half the total, compared to 2017.

Under Germany's electoral system, which combines local constituency votes and national support for party lists, the Left Party won three seats outright and a further 36 seats from the list.

The leaders of the Left Party and its reduced parliamentary group have promised to draw the necessary conclusions from the biggest defeat in the party's history. They are unlikely to succeed, after all, what they are facing are the results of their own politics.

Results

The Left Party, which was formed by the "East German" Party of Democratic Socialism and a split from the Social Democratic Party in 2005, lost support in practically all constituencies, but especially in the five eastern states. Of course, it had more to lose in its former strongholds, where it received on average 9.8 percent whereas in the western states the average was 3.5 percent. Even if it did better in the West than the PDS before 2005, the result in these federal states is still the worst in the party's history.

If we break down the votes according to age, it is noticeable that support is a little stronger among younger voters; 8 per cent 18-24 year olds, but only 4 percent with the over 45 year olds. Among the unemployed, 11 percent voted for the Left Party, but this is also far below previous results. Among trade unionists, support was a little above average at 6.6 percent, but this is down from 11.8 percent in 2017.

If we look at voter migration since the last federal election, a very clear picture emerges; most votes were lost to the SPD (590,000) and the Greens (470,000). This is followed by non-voters (370,000), various smaller parties (250,000) and around 100,000 each to the Alternative for Germany, AfD and the Liberal FDP. Some 40,000 votes even went to the CDU.

Defeat

Of course, the Left Party itself is politically responsible for the disastrous result. Firstly, it has been following a politically erratic course for years as a result of internal divisions. The "government socialists" are the officials and leaders who want to govern at almost any price. The left populists around Wagenknecht call for a return to the politics of the "little people", deplore the advance of identity politics, but adapt themselves to racist and nationalist moods. Finally, the "movement left" wants to link a transformational government policy with engagement in movements.

While the "movement left" is emphatically anti-racist and participates in mobilisations in solidarity with refugees, Sahra Wagenknecht declares that not everyone can be granted a "right of hospitality", and the state governments in Thuringia, Berlin or Bremen meanwhile deport refugees.

Divisions became particularly clear during the vote on the last Afghanistan mission. After the party had demanded the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr for years, the right wing now wanted to approve the so-called rescue mission. Left-wing MPs rejected it. The party executive tried to take the path of least resistance - and called for abstention! In the Bundestag itself, a majority of MPs followed that line, but five voted for the deployment and seven against. This obviously undermined the credibility of the party and put it on the defensive.

Such divisions can in fact be seen in all important policy areas. For example, the party advocates a faster phase-out of lignite-fired power generation - but not in Brandenburg. In Berlin, it supports the initiative to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co. and the hospital movement, but it was the SPD/PDS Senate that supported the original privatisation of housing and the deterioration of working conditions in the health sector. Thus, what the Left Party gains in prestige and recognition from individual struggles and movements, it loses from opportunism and government policy.

Change in membership

The internal conflict is aggravated by a change in party membership and voter base. The number of supporters in the East has been steadily dwindling. For years, the PDS and later the Left Party could count on support from former GDR citizens. Their class composition was heterogeneous, including parts of the old state apparatus and the elites of the GDR, who managed to become entrepreneurs, self-employed or higher wage earners in the Federal Republic. Such a voter base cannot be permanently reproduced, and that is just as well.

However, the Left Party was not able to retain the unemployed and precariously employed in the East on a permanent basis or to win over new strata of wage earners. This is because it did not act as a resolute opposition to the prevailing conditions, but rather presented itself as a better, social-democratic co-manager of these.

Although the Left Party has won new members, especially in the West and among young people and wage earners, including those active in companies and trade unions, these have never been enough to offset losses elsewhere.

Political pipe dream

For many years after its foundation, the Left Party gained voters and members from the SPD which had introduced the harsh "reforms" of Hartz 4 and the "Agenda 2010" while in government until 2005. However, this voter movement has come to a standstill in recent years. On the contrary, as soon as the SPD moved verbally a little to the left and appeared as a potential governing party, it succeeded in winning back voters from the Left Party.

The losses to the SPD (and also the Greens) highlight a fundamental problem for the Left Party. For years, while the SPD defended its "reforms", and was in coalition with the conservative Christian Democrat Union of Angela Merkel, the Left presented itself as the better, "genuine" social democratic party. This year, as soon as it became clear that the Social Democrats could win the elections, hundreds of thousands of people who were wavering between the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party opted to vote Social Democratic in order to prevent a CDU-led government. This probably cost the Left Party over a million voters.

Ironically, the Left Party's tactics reinforced this. According to some polls, a red-green-red government was an arithmetic possibility. Although the SPD and the Greens themselves did not favour such a coalition, the Left Party leaders talked up the possibility - and effectively withdrew their own left-reformist electoral programme. Instead, they proposed a vague programme in which all essential differences with the SPD and the Greens were either omitted or minimised.

Wrong signal

Quite apart from the fact that a red-green-red coalition was always just a pipe dream, the change of programme drove away support; those for whom beating the CDU was the first priority saw no reason to vote for the Left rather than the SPD, those who wanted to see a more radical social democratic programme turned away in disgust, or at least disappointment.

Their "tactics" reveal not only the Left Party leadership's deep-seated opportunism but their detachment from reality. For them, the election was a confrontation between two "camps": the neoliberal CDU/CSU and the "reform", SPD and Greens. The SPD and the Greens, however, lacked the courage for a social, ecological coalition committed to real improvements. The Left Party could provide the necessary backbone.

This superficial view completely fails to recognise that the Greens and the SPD have been integrated into the political system of rule for decades, they know full well what German capital wants from government. For the ruling class, the Left Party would be an unreliable ally, and it sees no reason to take this additional risk in the face of foreign and European policy problems, the pandemic and economic difficulties.
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The fragmentation of the traditional party system is already causing enough headaches, there is no need for further uncertainties. The leaders of the SPD and the Greens know that they are expected to bring about as stable a government as possible - and that means a coalition with the FPD, or even the CDU/CSU.

These real class relations, like the real class character of the programmes of the SPD and Greens, play no role in the calculations of the leadership of the Left. Instead, they based their tactics on the superficial phenomena of the parliamentary system, such as opinion polls. By obscuring the real conditions instead of making them clear, the Left Party leadership created a fantasy land for themselves, but for few others. On 26 September it paid the price for this. Now, it is time for the left in the Left Party to stand up against this mixture of opportunism, capitulation and political misjudgement.

Clarity
This means, first and foremost, understanding the reformist character of the Left Party itself. The orientation towards government participation, at almost any price, flows from a politics that does not want to overthrow capitalism but to manage it.

As long as criticism does not go beyond the accusation that too many concessions were made in pursuit of the Red-Green-Red coalition, it is ultimately superficial and moralistic. It criticises only the results, not the foundations of reformism. It is precisely such a fundamental critique that the left must make, both inside and outside the Left Party, in order to develop a political alternative that can go beyond its framework programmatically, strategically and tactically. This fundamental debate on a revolutionary programme is indispensable if the catastrophe of 26 September is not to be followed by more.

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