Tabloid photographers in Berlin recently captured a fully dressed 69-year-old German man roaming a nudist beach by a lake and cozying up with stark naked women and men. That man is Gregor Gysi, a former leader of The Left, Germany’s post-communist party. During his visit to Muggelsee, a popular bathing spot for East Berliners, he was bemoaning the decline of “free body culture”, as Germans call nudism. As a publicity stunt it was well targeted. In East Germany during its dictatorship, the naturist approach to the great outdoors was prized as the last redoubt of individualism. Mr. Gysi’s outing was a really a naked appeal to The Left’s base in eastern Germany.
Read between the (tan)lines, and Mr. Gysi was doing what the party has always done: posing as defender of Germans in the former East. This strategy may seem surprising, given that the two halves of Germany reunified a whole generation ago. The Left is in this sense an anachronism. In the political spectrum as it exists in Germany today, it is a party of loony leftists and nostalgic easterners who are struggling, and mostly failing, to find their place.
The Left was officially formed on July 16, 2007, in another sort of west-east merger: From western Germany came disgruntled Social Democrats, unionists, radical Marxists and anti-Capitalists; from eastern Germany came the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS. The PDS had a background many western Germans find disturbing: It was the successor to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Left became the quintessential party of protest with the ability “to attract the politically disenfranchised by default.”
In its ideology, The Left still reflects that communist and radical heritage. It is anti-capitalist, anti-NATO, anti-American, anti-EU. It is also Russophile and claims to be radically pacifist. These views are held most passionately by the western members of the party, many of whom defected from the center-left SPD when it was last in power and enacted market-friendly labor reforms (known as Agenda 2010) which they considered downright evil. In eastern Germany, however, The Left is less frothing-at-the-mouth than all this sounds. There it is popular with those voters who want to voice discontent about reunification or Ostalgie (a play on the German words for “east” and “nostalgia”).
For much of past decade, The Left could stake a credible claim to being Germany’s quintessential party of protest. Its purpose, said one member, was “to attract the politically disenfranchised by default.” But by 2010, The Left’s rhetoric about looming class warfare started falling flat. Since the financial crisis, the economy has been growing and unemployment falling. The government of Angela Merkel and her junior partner, the same SPD that The Left loves to loathe, even poached some signature policies from The Left, such as a minimum wage.
The Left also suffered from a tendency among its leaders and members to tear one another apart at any opportunity, a leftist tradition at least since Trotskyists and Leninists went at it. In recent years it lost its most charismatic leaders to retirement, including the eastern Mr. Gysi and the western Oskar Lafontaine. Like those two, its supporters are getting long in the tooth. Their average age is 68.
Worse from the point of view of the remaining radicals is the pragmatism and moderation that The Left has inevitably had to display wherever it is in regional or local government. And so The Left has somehow ended up both less radical, and more marginalized. Less radical, because of its participation in regional government, which undermines its claim to be a fundamentalist opposition in national politics. Marginalized, because it is still no nearer to being a reasonable coalition partner at federal level.
The Eternal Opposition
Party leaders Gregor Gysi (left) and Oskar Lafontaine under a sign that says “together” in 2005. Before Lafontaine came along, the PDS never did that well with west German voters. In 1994, 1998 and 2002 federal elections, they didn’t even manage to cross the 5 percent threshold for party lists. Source: DDP
PDS party leader Gregor Gysi holds up one of his party’s new signs in 2007. After the PDS rebranded themselves they became “Die Linke. PDS”, or “the Left. PDS.” In states where the PDS’ background was unpalatable, the PDS part was simply left off campaign posters. Source: DPA
The Left Party is often seen as being anti-EU; they were opposed to the fiscal pact that brought European nations closer together financially. Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht sports at a badge protesting the pact in 2012. Source: DPA
Graffiti on a Left Party office: The SED ruled East Germany after 1946 and was a not-so-distant forerunner to the Left. Those who suffered under Communist rule in East Germany have bad memories of the SED. Source: DPA
Part of the Left Party has its roots in the SED, the Socialist Unity Party, which ruled East Germany after 1946. Erich Honecker (center) was the leader of the SED. Source: DPA
In 2017, the AfD party is competing with the Left to be the party of the protest voter. Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht (pictured in 2015) has turned up the volume on her own version of the AfD’s rhetoric, blaming Chancellor Angela Merkel for a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market last year, saying it was due to “uncontrolled border opening”. Her comments were roundly condemned. Source: DPA
One of the Left Party’s problems in the 2017 election is confusion as to who is standing for what, experts say. The two lead candidates are Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch but the party’s co-leaders, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, are also major identities for the party faithful. Source: DPA
Above it all lingers the cloud of the bad old Communist connections. The Left has often been accused of trying to whitewash its Soviet-era past. Critics won’t let Sahra Wagenknecht, a current party leader (and wife of Oskar Lafontaine), forget that she once wrote that the Berlin Wall was a “necessary evil.” This January, party member Andrej Holm was forced to resign from his job as Berlin’s secretary for housing because he had not correctly declared his job with the Stasi, the hated East German secret police.
But perhaps the worst development for The Left is the growth since 2013 of a new populist party that beckons to protest voters. This is the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. It is notionally far right, with views that are anti-immigrant and nationalist. But it resembles The Left in its authoritarian bent, its anti-Americanism and Russophila. All this plays especially well in eastern Germany, where it is drawing supporters from The Left. The AfD has thus become the new party of the German working class. A July 2017 study by the German Institute for Economic Research found that 34 percent of those who planned to vote for the AfD described themselves as working class, as opposed to only 22 percent of Left voters.
In the run-up to federal elections on September 24, The Left has been polling between 7 and 10 percent, about where the other small parties stand (the ecology-focused Greens, the pro-market Free Democrats, and the AfD). It thus appears stuck in a no-man’s land: no longer the radical rebels of old, but not yet responsible partners either. You can expect increasingly desperate attempts to get attention – sort of like Mr. Gysi cozying up with naked ladies by a lake.
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