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Germany's socialist Left Party fights for survival

November 20, 2023

The post-communist Left Party is struggling to remain a viable political force after populist lawmaker Sahra Wagenknecht led a split from the party. At a party conference, they tried to reinvent themselves.

Activist Carola Rackete (left) and party co-chair Martin Schirdewan holding flowers, smiling
Activist Carola Rackete (left) and party co-chair Martin Schirdewan have been elected as top candidates for the EU parliament elections.Image: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/picture alliance

When it comes to procedural affairs in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, the Left Party will be no more: On December 6, the socialists will no longer have enough lawmakers to constitute a parliamentary faction and will be downgraded to merely a "group."

That's the result of the resignation of the party's best-known member, Sahra Wagenknecht, who took nine of the party's 38 Bundestag members with her when she left the party. They have announced a new alliance, with more details to come next year.

The 28 remaining party lawmakers are too few to classify as a parliamentary faction. That means they lose certain rights, including committee participation and longer speaking times during debates.

Left Party dissolves parliamentary group after defections

Internal disagreement has bubbled for a long time, as had rumors that Wagenknecht would go ahead with her plan to leave. The biggest point of recent contention was migration: Wagenknecht and her allies wanted a more restrictive policy than the rest of the party.

"Better united with 28 than divided with 38," said Dietmar Bartsch, the outgoing leader of the faction.

'Opportunity for a new start'

At a three-day national Left Party conference in the Bavarian city of Augsburg in mid-November, activist Carola Rackete, a fierce migration advocate who has captained rescue ships in the Mediterranean, was elected the party's top candidate for the 2024 European Parliament elections. 

"Our party has just experienced a turning point," said Left Party Co-Chairman Martin Schirdewan in his speech to delegates in Augsburg. "For years, we have fought out strategic and substantive conflicts in public far too often. This has damaged our credibility and damaged the trust of our voters."

Delegates condemned Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine as "contrary to international law" and a "crime". At the same time, they called on the European Union (EU) to urgently step up its diplomatic efforts "instead of fueling escalation and a war of attrition," as Schirdewan put it.

He also addressed the Israel-Hamas conflict, condemning the terrorist attacks by Hamas on October 7, and their aim to destroy Israel. He also referred to the bombing of civilian facilities in the Gaza Strip and the withholding of humanitarian goods as a massive breach of international humanitarian law, as is the use of civilians as shields by Hamas. "And that is why I am calling for an immediate ceasefire to end the deaths. The Hamas hostages must be released immediately," the Left Party leader said.

Left Party rooted in the East

Die Linke, as Germany's Left Party is called, has a long history of changing form. Until 2007 it was called the Party of Democratic Socialism, which grew out of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) that ruled communist East Germany until its collapse in 1990.

Bartsch sees the crisis as an opportunity, noting that the Left Party remains in three state governments and leads the government of the state of Thuringia, in eastern Germany.

"It is an opportunity for a new start. We must seize this opportunity with determination," said Bartsch.

The goal of returning to full faction status in the Bundestag may be difficult, said Antonios Souris, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

"None of these are real centers of power from which you could set your own political course that would then also have the scope or appeal for convincing voters at a federal level," he told DW, referring to the areas where the Left does still hold power.

Dietmar Bartsch
Dietmar Bartsch hails from eastern Germany and has long been trying to keep his party togetherImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Wagenknecht aims to rob far-right AfD of support

The Left Party's efforts to advocate for progressive policies put them in a tough spot, said Souris. Trying to advocate for climate change policy, for example, gets overshadowed by the Greens' reputation as the environmentalist party.

"The effects of the war in Ukraine, housing and social policy are issues that are the Left's bread and butter," he said. Yet they have not profited from such issues becoming more urgent.

With Wagenknecht's departure, the Left Party faces another hurdle: recognizable faces. Though she has said the aim of her new alliance is to rob the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) of support, it may end up stealing what few voters the Left still has at the same time. With the AfD surging in polls, it seems the far-right populists have successfully taken the protest vote away from the Left Party.

The eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, where the AfD is particularly strong, all face elections in 2024. Between the AfD's popularity and the potential power of Wagenknecht's new organization, which some estimate at 20%, the Left Party faces a daunting electoral task.

What's next for the Left Party?

On Ukraine, the party appears to be on both sides. It has condemned Russia's war of aggression as "contrary to international law" and a "crime." It has also called on the EU to turn toward diplomacy "instead of fueling escalation and a war of attrition."

Hand-in-hand with that position, the Left Party has accused the EU of using the war as an opportunity to increase military budgets. In Germany, lawmakers approved borrowing €100 billion ($108 billion) to create a special fund for its armed forces.

The vote for the European Parliament in June will be the party's next big test, but party leaders are already eyeing their next chance to improve at the national level. Germany will not vote for a new Bundestag until 2025.

Bartsch, despite his optimism, has acknowledged that parliamentary success will be "a Herculean task."

This article was originally written in German. It was first published on November 17 and updated after the end of the party conference.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.