Jeremy Corbyn Doesn’t Translate Into German

A new movement wants to revolutionize Germany’s left-of-center politics—but the country’s voters won't follow in British and French footsteps.

Sahra Wagenknecht, top candidate of the Left party (Die Linke) and her husband  Oskar Lafontaine arrive for an election party night on September 24, 2017 in Berlin. (JAN WOITAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Sahra Wagenknecht, top candidate of the Left party (Die Linke) and her husband Oskar Lafontaine arrive for an election party night on September 24, 2017 in Berlin. (JAN WOITAS/AFP/Getty Images)

German party politics has recently become one colorful actor richer. A new political movement called Aufstehen (best translated as “Get Up”) aims to reproduce the successes of left-wing populist parties in other European countries. Since its soft launch in August—its official opening event is scheduled for Sept. 4—it has already attracted 60,000 supporters. It’s fair to wonder whether Germany—the country whose conservative consensus on international economic policy has made it the object of anger among leftists across the continent—may soon have a recognized national leader in the mold of the United Kingdom’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite all the hoopla, the answer is quite clearly no. Get Up will almost certainly soon be asked by German voters to sit down.

Aufstehen’s explicit goal is to unite the left-leaning German voters who are currently split across the country’s three left-of-center parties—the Left, the Greens, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD)—and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has recently attracted a large share of blue- and white-collar workers. Although the three left-wing parties together have polled at around 40 to 50 percent, and earned a majority in parliament after the 2013 federal election, they have never managed to form a government because of disagreements over key policy areas, especially foreign policy. Ultimately, the SPD has always found it easier to form grand coalitions with conservative Christian Democrats.

The first goal of Aufstehen is to attract more German voters to existing left-leaning parties, especially luring voters from the AfD. But its ultimate ambition seems to be to transition from an informal grassroots movement to a new umbrella party for the German left that would supplant the SPD entirely.

Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing makeover of the Labour Party in the U.K. is one model for Aufstehen; another is Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (Untamed France). Both of those parties suggest German leftism has yet to approach its ceiling of support. While Labour currently polls at 40 percent and the far-left in France at close to 20 percent, Germany’s left-wing party Die Linke (the Left) has held steady at 10 percent for years. But there are at least three reasons it would be a mistake to blithely compare the prospects for Germany’s budding leftist movement with those in the U.K. or France.

The first reason is that Aufstehen’s leaders—Sahra Wagenknecht, the head of the fraction of the Left party in the German parliament, and her husband, Oskar Lafontaine, the head of its regional branch the tiny southwestern state of Saarland—are flawed vessels for a popular movement. Both are notorious in German politics for their talent, but also for their unruliness. In the 1990s, Lafontaine was the leader of the SPD, which he helped bring to an election victory in 1998—only to quit the Cabinet and the party after accusing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat himself, of implementing neoliberal policies.

Wagenknecht, by contrast, was never a Social Democrat. Growing up in communist East Germany, she was a committed Marxist and member of the Socialist Unity Party, which had led the country’s dictatorship since World War II. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, she joined its successor, the Party of Democratic Socialism, which in the early years after reunification remained a fringe party with its base in the in former East. This is where Wagenknecht’s story intersects with Lafontaine’s: In 2005, Lafontaine led the merger of her party with a small party based in western Germany, thus creating the Left, which began to compete in elections across the country. The party openly denigrated Schröder’s government, especially its labor market reforms, and successfully siphoned away many former SPD voters. (Plenty of political commentators referred to this new party as “Lafontaine’s revenge.”)

In the years since, Wagenknecht moved up the party ranks and is now the leader of its parliamentary group in the Bundestag. She became known as a fierce critic of German welfare state cuts and also German eurozone politics; she not only opposes Merkel’s responses to the euro crisis but also openly questions German participation in the European currency. These positions are widely shared within the Left. Still, rather than a unifying figure in her own party, she is widely viewed as the leader of a controversial faction that wants to move to the right on issues related to migration and multiculturalism. During the refugee debates in Germany, she broke with the party’s progressive line and called for substantially more restrictive policies.

Commentators speculate that this could be the winning formula for Wagenknecht’s new Aufstehen party: left-wing positions on economics and right-wing stances on identity politics. This would be an agenda remarkably like Corbyn’s more nationalist Labour Party (which seems fine with the U.K. leaving the European Union) and with Mélenchon’s nationalist leftist platform in France, which heavily criticizes French membership in the eurozone. Aufstehen thus tries to unite the fractured camp of left-leaning voters who have turned their back on the established center-left parties, some of whom have even wandered off to the far-right. Voters who abandoned the SPD should by lured by left-wing economics, and those who sympathize with the AfD could be won over via right-wing identity politics. And various polls indeed show that many German blue- and white-collar workers demand more left-wing economics and more restrictive policies when it comes to migration.

But in practice, Wagenknecht and Lafontaine are trapped by their own personal track records, which will prevent them from coalescing wide support.

Lafontaine is anathema to many leading German left intellectuals, who blame him for the SPD’s tumbling from one defeat to the next in recent years. If the left wing he led hadn’t abandoned the SPD in the 1990s, they argue, the party could have been the country’s dominant voice in the 2000s. Instead, the SPD fractured, lost voters, and fell behind the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has been governing the country under Chancellor Angela Merkel for more than a decade. Plenty of center-left politicians therefore accuse Lafontaine of putting personal vanity above the interests of his party and the nation. This is hardly a promising position for someone trying to unite scattered voting blocs.

Things aren’t any better with Wagenknecht. Aside from the known political enemies she made during her career, her enduring sympathies for Marxism alienated many left-leaning Germans. Her very conservative stance on refugees did the same, because even though plenty of Germans demand more restrictive immigration policies, plenty of progressive voters do not, least of all the Green Party’s highly educated voters. Polls show voters of the SPD and the Left are neatly split down the middle on migration questions. The same goes for economics: They might be in favor of a strong welfare state and high taxes, but they are not interested in leaving the eurozone, heavy tax increases, or the implementation of an East German-style welfare state. A talented politician might be able to finesse these tensions. Just like her husband, however, Wagenknecht tends to cause more political frictions than she reconciles and open more personal wounds than she heals.

But even if both could overcome the accumulated grievances against them, the existing party landscape will make their lives difficult. For a party to increase its vote share, two things need to exist: a substantial demand among voters for its program and a lack of supply from other established parties. The right-wing populist AfD, for instance, rose because the CDU under Merkel stopped offering conservative positions on immigration matters. But ever since last year’s national election, the CDU has been trying to move further to the right. This has restricted Aufstehen’s room to maneuver on identity politics: The conservative position on immigration policy is pretty much covered by the AfD and some CDU politicians.

A similar problem bedevils the new movement on economic issues, which seems to be where Aufstehen is placing most of its energy. The movement wants to portray itself as the left-wing alternative to the governing SPD, which it accuses of being too market liberal. And it does have a point. The SPD, during its time in office under Schröder amid a decadelong recession in the early 2000s, implemented the so-called Agenda 2010, which substantially cut the German welfare state and liberalized labor law. Aufstehen wants to argue that, now that Germany’s economy has been booming for a decade, such self-imposed austerity is no longer necessary.

There is one big problem with this strategy—the SPD has essentially come to the same realization. Until recently, the SPD was not keen on increased public spending because it wanted to defend the reforms it had itself previously passed. Instead, to the extent that the party emphasized economics at all, its policies were channeled through cultural and identity politics, including vague calls for more pro-European and pro-refugee policies. But this approach clearly backfired: The SPD earned its worst electoral result at the last federal election in September 2017, dropping to only 20.5 percent, of the vote and ultimately forced to enter another grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU.

The present leader of the SPD, Andrea Nahles, and SPD Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz have committed to changing course. It’s clear the SPD now wants to focus on left-leaning economics instead of identity politics. A few weeks ago, the SPD announced plans to guarantee German pensions at the current level until 2040, which experts calculate will cost hundreds of billions of euros. This is meant to be the start of a refurbished SPD profile that will eventually close the exact electoral niche Aufstehen wants to fill. In the current economic climate, in which Germans are generally happy with their economic situations, it is hard to imagine how Aufstehen could design an economic platform further to the left of the SPD that voters would still find desirable.

In the United Kingdom and France, left-wing populist parties rose due three reasons: first, thanks to leaders who could appeal to a significant vote share of left-leaning voters; second, because established center-left parties could not offer left positions on economics anymore; and third, their countries had slow growth rates that led established parties to cut welfare state benefits. All three factors are absent in Germany in 2018. It’s possible to imagine some version of Aufstehen credibly rising to power, but only if the German economy would rapidly grind to a halt; if the SPD would retreat from its newly established left-leaning economic strategy; and if the movement would itself find more promising leaders. But those are three very big “ifs.”

Timo Lochocki is a visiting professor of public policy at Davidson College.

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