Where’s the German Corbyn?

While the charismatic likes of Jeremy and Bernie have led left-wing surges in Britain and the US, the German left still hasn’t been able to come up with an alternative to Merkel. Ben Knight talked to members of Die Linke and the SPD to find out why.

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Illustration by Florian Sänger

While the charismatic likes of Jeremy and Bernie have led left-wing surges in Britain and the US, the German left still hasn’t been able to come up with a credible alternative to Merkel. Ben Knight talked to members of Die Linke and the SPD to find out why.    

Angela Merkel is gliding to a fourth term in office like a big, comfortable, pragmatically helmed ship. Of course, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) will pee into the water and likely make a smell in the Bundestag, but they won’t take over Germany.

But what about the left? The G20 protests in Hamburg in July showed that there are all kinds of anti-capitalist rage in Germany, just as the anti-TTIP protests before them showed there was a healthy distrust of global neo-liberalism. So how come none of that is visible in the opinion polls? The Left party (Die Linke) is still polling at 10 percent, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – despite a jolt in January when European Parliament President Martin Schulz was named candidate – is back to trailing Merkel’s CDU by at least 12 percentage points. Why? Why were the British Labour and US Democrats able to put forward charismatic leaders like Corbyn and Sanders, while the Germans are unable to do the same?

Some would say that the German left got its Corbyn/Sanders moment a few years ago, when Oskar Lafontaine, Gerhard Schröder’s finance minister, deserted the Social Democrats in 1999, railed against Schröder’s neo-liberal social reforms and eventually helped found Die Linke in 2007. You could call it the Lafontaine inoculation.

“Lafontaine was a similarly charismatic figure to Sanders in the US or Corbyn in Britain. Social Democracy split itself to the left back then,” says Matthias Micus, a political scientist at the Institute for Democracy Research in Göttingen who has written about the stagnation of the SPD. “A leftist opposition within the party doesn’t exist today because it left the party and joined Die Linke.”

Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University who has written about both the SPD and Die Linke, would go a lot further back than Lafontaine. “We just have a different party tradition here,” he says. Here’s the short version: the SPD was originally a collection of different socialist groups that coalesced in the 19th century before fragmenting again after World War I, when various outright radical communist parties branched off from the stem of Social Democracy. As a result, whereas the Democrats and the Labour Party like to keep their domestic rows internal (partly because the first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t favour coalitions), a difference among leftists in Germany often leads to a new party.

The result of this, paradoxically, is that political parties here have to be more ready to compromise with each other if they want to get into power. All German governments are coalitions, no party ever gets to do whatever it wants, and everyone has to decide beforehand whom they’d consider bedding in with. Die Linke and the Greens would be fine forming a coalition with the SPD; the CDU would prefer the FDP but wouldn’t mind the Greens; the Greens would prefer the SPD but wouldn’t mind the CDU. The SPD, so far, has shown itself willing to ally towards the centre, but can’t yet bring itself to team up with Die Linke.

It just works differently in Germany. Even our own voters know that when we are in power, we make compromises

That affects the political culture, even for radical parties, and how people vote. “It just works differently in Germany,” says Stefan Liebich, Die Linke’s MP for Pankow, Prenzlauer Berg and Weißensee. “Voters know that we have a coalition system, and they want a coalition system. Even our own voters know that when we are in power, we make compromises.”

Die Linke holds many of the same positions as Corbyn’s Labour Party – more nationalised industries and a welfare system not based on punishing unemployed people, for example – but, while Germany also suffers from growing inequality and poverty, the economic conditions have never been bad enough to spark outright outrage. “Germany came out of the financial crisis very well,” Micus points out. With the lowest under-25 unemployment rate in the EU (6.7 percent in May 2017, compared to 12.3 percent in the UK and 46.6 percent in Greece), Germany has also been taking better care of its young people in recent years. “And it’s especially the young people who felt frustrated, or blocked, who felt like they had no future, who became the supporters of Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK,” says Micus.

But, while most Germans are more or less satisfied with their current circumstances, this tranquility is superficial. There might not be the right economic conditions for popular leftist insurrection, but the mood is not nearly as complacent as the CDU’s dominance might suggest. The collapse in Merkel’s approval rating in 2015 and 2016 showed that it doesn’t take much for Germans to panic – and a mass, short-term influx of darker-skinned people will do it every time.

There have been other signs. The brief hype around Martin Schulz that erupted earlier this year when he took over the SPD showed that Germans did have an appetite for something different. Schulz wasn’t exactly a political newcomer like Emmanuel Macron, but at least he was an SPD man with no direct experience of Merkel’s suffocating grand coalition. The “Schulz effect” added some 10-12 percentage points to the SPD’s poll ratings earlier this year and the Social Democrats drew neck and neck with the CDU, but the frenzy soon dissipated. “That short-term explosion of popularity for Schulz was not least down to his image as a different type, not one of the old, traditional politicians, but someone who was some kind of anti-politician,” says Micus. “In principle, it was the classic thing that populists profit from – which you do get in Germany too, as you see with the AfD.”

But what the SPD forgot to do, according to Micus, was the actual politics – that is, offer a clear alternative to another Merkel government. The SPD’s main manifesto proposals in the last few months have included tax and pension proposals that were only slightly more egalitarian variations on the CDU-driven status quo. These were, as Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg SPD parliamentarian Cansel Kiziltepe admits, merely “corrections”, rather than a new direction. Corbyn, meanwhile, had no trouble staking out a totally different path to the Tories, and the presentation of his manifesto became a galvanising moment for his campaign.

Not that the SPD can exactly legitimately offer a compromise-free alternative, given that they’ve been all about compromise with the CDU for the last four years – even if, as they would argue, they have been able to introduce many of their policies into Merkel’s government.

“You can trace this back to the politics of the last few years,” says Kiziltepe, trying to explain her party’s fundamental credibility problem following the shuddering election defeat of 2009, when the SPD gained only 23 percent of the vote. “There were social cutbacks – Agenda 2010, the Hartz reforms. It was a neoliberal phase. We squandered a lot of trust, and it’s not that easy to win it back.”

But, speaking in August just as the first campaign posters were being hung up around the city, Kiziltepe thinks “too little has happened so far” – even in the current campaign. It would have been better, she suggested, if the SPD had fought harder for a leftist, “red-red-green” coalition.

The problem here is that the sections of the SPD that wanted that coalition were silenced by the three state elections this year, in which they were defeated badly. That killed their courage to try and mobilise the leftist voter. Liebich blames the SPD for this failure. Schulz, he says, is not a viable alternative candidate. “Bernie Sanders had a real chance of becoming the presidential candidate, and Jeremy Corbyn got close to a possible majority, but as long as Martin Schulz doesn’t go on the offensive and say: ‘I want to really govern together with the Greens and the Left,’ nothing will happen.”

But that doesn’t explain why Die Linke hasn’t been able to energise a whole new section of the electorate the way Corbyn did. The anti-TTIP movement, which moved both Trump and Sanders supporters in the US, mobilised a lot of Germans too, but still, support for the left-wing party is stuck at 10 percent.

“You have to remember we were never a party of power, like the SPD or the Labour party or the Democrats,” Liebich says. “We had a long complicated history, and in the last legislative period we had a change in leadership, where our most famous and most important politician, Gregor Gysi, stepped back from the front line. The fact that we’re stable at 10 percent is, for us, a big deal.”

Another problem, says Liebich, is that even people who are critical of TTIP will still vote for Merkel. “When they vote, what they have in their head is: ‘Who is running our country?’ Schulz with a left-wing alliance might bring more social justice. But with Merkel, we know what we’ve got.”