Temporary blog of the CWI

Far right AfD wins in East German state elections and the response of socialists 

The fact that the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) failed to become the strongest party after elections in the East German states of Saxony and Brandenburg is no cause for celebration. The results of the 1st September  election  demonstrate a stabilization of a high level of support for the openly extreme right-wing AfD confirming the results of the earlier parliamentary and European elections.

By Claus Ludwig,  one of the spokespersons of the Anti-Capitalist Left in Die Linke, North Rhine Westphalia and member of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), Germany.

There was an increase in voter turnout at the last minute, partly due to an anti-AfD mobilization. Although they still lost votes overall, this predominantly benefited the two  parties of the current state  Prime Ministers – the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg – because there was no viable alternative to their governments.

Despite the shameful election results of the SPD in Saxony, whose vote fell  from the already low 12.4% in 2014 to 7.7% in this election, the ruling elite need the SPD more than ever before in the government. The crash in their support does not accelerate the end of the coalition of SPD and CDU at the federal level, but rather stabilizes the government for the time being.

As a result of the increased voter turnout, the AfD, Greens, and FDP (the CDU’s smaller right-wing coalition partner) saw an increase in the absolute number of votes in both states, as did the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg. Die Linke, on the other hand, saw its vote cut by half in percentage terms in both states, losing almost 48,000 votes in Brandenburg and 85,000 in Saxony.  The ongoing crisis of Die Linke, with poor showings in several recent state elections, a weak result in the 2017 federal elections and the European elections, has now  reached an acute stage.

Die Linke is losing its identity

Die Linke is making mistake after mistake. In Brandenburg, for example, it is suffering from the devastating effect of its  involvement in the government coalition with the SPD.  It has agreed to the implementation of a repressive police law. Contrary to Die Linke’s national policy, it has supported the expansion of lignite mining, a major issue in Germany. As part of the government, it is responsible for cuts in the public sector and has not offered any answers to tackle any of the problems of people living in the increasingly de-industrialized rural areas of the state. In one survey, 70% said that Die Linke had ‘not pushed anything through the state government that I  noticed’. 

In the State of Saxony too, there is no fundamental difference. Here, Die Linke is proving that it can act ‘responsibly’ by supporting the cuts policy of the government.

While these facts are obvious, parts of the party and parliamentary leadership, above all the Party chair Katja Kipping and the parliamentary faction chair Dietmar Bartsch, are going on the offensive to prove they are prepared to co-govern both in the states and in Germany as a whole. With the Greens rushing from one election victory to the next, the possibility of a coalition between the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke has once again become possible. But politically this will not change anything.

Co-operation with the SPD and the Greens can only happen at the price of Die Linke losing its political identity. In eastern Germany, the party has already abandoned its role as a social protest party; it is seen as part of the establishment.

After this, even modest successes in one election or another cannot cover up the harm that is done from having talked about a fundamentally different policy but not delivering it.

But their actions when staying out of government are no better. For years, Die Linke in Saxony has been behaving like a government party in waiting. In its program for the state elections, it spoke of a ‘brake on privatization’ without completely rejecting privatization and transferring the already privatized companies back into public ownership. They said the building of social housing should be ‘stimulated’, without making clear that the state and the municipalities would do the building.

Are social questions underemphasized?

Within the ranks and structures of Die Linke a debate has been going on for some time about whether ‘social questions’ are sufficiently emphasized. The supporters of Sarah Wagenknecht (co-leader of the parliamentary faction and initiator of an attempted broader left project involving members of the Greens and Social-democrats) claim that Die Linke has neglected these issues and is too similar to the Greens as an urban party that focuses on issues such as anti-racism and the environment.

It is true that it is these real social issues that have led to frustration, on which the fear-based propaganda of the right-wing populists has fed. This includes the social degradation that has hit eastern Germany with low wages, precarious jobs, worries about economic problems and poverty in old age, as well as the living experience of Die Linke’s participation in government.

However, polls indicate that in both Saxony and Brandenburg social justice and economic problems were not determining factors in this election. 58% in Brandenburg and 75% in Saxony say that they are satisfied with their economic situation. On the other hand, 63% in Saxony fear that ‘climate change is destroying our livelihoods’ and 60% that the ‘influence of Islam’ is becoming ‘too strong’ in Germany. 

Given this, it is not enough to worship the ‘social question’ as an empty icon without giving specific solutions to meet the concerns. This includes formulating a clear anti-racist position. On the climate question, Die Linke needs to fill the vacuum that the Greens leave by advocating radical ecological change, fighting for it to be paid for,  not by the working class, but by the rich and the corporations.

Climate protection and jobs

The AfD received support from many workers including in the lignite mining area of Lausitz, becoming, with just one exception, the strongest party in all constituencies. They did this by playing on the fears that there is a conflict between the ecology and the economy, climate protection and jobs. Out of concern for their jobs, many workers voted for the AfD, which actually denies climate change. 

Neither the opportunist approach of Die Linke in Brandenburg, which wants to continue lignite mining, nor the ignorant attitude of the Greens who do not care about jobs, works well here. There is a desperate need for a Left party that fights decisively for the maintenance of the wages of the lignite miners until alternative work is secured as the use of the climate killing lignite is phased out. This will not be possible if the party is afraid to raise the question of who actually owns the mines and that the energy industry should be nationalized under democratic control.

Given the experiences with the false promises made by the then CDU Chancellor Kohl after the unification with West Germany nearly 30 years ago, it is understandable that the mine workers do not trust general promises of replacement jobs and structural programs. Die Linke should advocate a comprehensive public program for the ecological restructuring of industry. It would have to actively take to the streets to fight for it, argue for this position in the trade unions and show workers a perspective on how they themselves can become active in defence of their standards of living.

System change

Taking up the ‘social question’ in a defensive way, copying the reformist traditions of social democracy, will not work. There is a direct link between the interests of the working class and the big questions of the future, migration and climate, with the question of how we want to live and who makes the decisions. The party should address the ‘social question’ in a forward-looking way. For this it has to become anti-capitalist in an offensive way.

The whole system is going through a structural economic, ecological, social, and political crisis, regardless of the relative upswing in Germany, which is still having an effect on consciousness. The only way Die Linke can get out of its strategic dilemma is if it offers answers to these crises and demonstrates during the debate that it has practical answers.

As long as Die Linke lacks the courage to fundamentally question capitalism, as long as it sees issues such as climate protection, housing shortages, racism, and poverty through the eyes of an advertising agency, it will remain behind developments. The party must communicate the vision of a fundamentally different society; it needs a socialist perspective that must be underpinned by concrete proposals. Neither a further adaptation to the SPD and the Greens, nor mutual recriminations and new debates over functions and who holds them will help. Die Linke must change by rejecting the approach of defining its policies by orienting towards parliament and watching the establishment parties, instead focusing on campaigns and involvement in social disputes. It must prove itself as an active force, which has a practical value to people on the ground.

The AfD won’t disappear

The crisis of the system, the drifting apart of the European Union, and growing contradictions between the regions of the world are leading to a polarization – to the left and to the right. However, the polarization to the left, which is currently expressed in major anti-racist protests and the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement, has no equivalent on the electoral level. Meanwhile, the AfD has succeeded in almost monopolizing the right-wing polarization in elections.

The AfD has characteristics of a ‘protest party’: 87% of AfD voters in Brandenburg and 83% in Saxony say that this is the only party which can be used to express a protest against the establishment. But it is not simply a misguided social protest that could easily be redirected to the left. Only 14% of AfD voters in Brandenburg stated that wages and pensions had been decisive in deciding how they voted, just 11% in Saxony said this about social security. 97% in Brandenburg and 99% in Saxony said that they liked the AfD because it ‘wants to limit the influx of foreigners and refugees’, 30% and 34% respectively said that demands in this direction had been decisive in deciding who to vote for.

Horst Kahrs from Die Linke’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation writes in his election analysis: “Whoever chooses AfD wants a different society”. This is simplistic, but not wrong. The protest character of the AfD is based on deep-seated ethnic and racist attitudes; it floats on the worldwide wave of reactionary responses to the crisis of capitalism. Only 24% of AfD supporters think that living conditions have deteriorated massively. But 92% are worried about the influence of Islam and 80% that “our lives” are changing too much.

This also explains why the clear move to the right by the party has barely affected its popularity. The AfD in Saxony and Brandenburg are open to the militant far right, and the top candidate in Brandenburg, Kalbitz, is in open contact with Nazis. Throughout the East, the aggressively racist “wing” around Bernd Höcke is dominant.

There is no easy road to reducing support for the AfD. In a period in which social struggles are not openly fought out and class questions are pushed behind those of societal values, the AfD can relatively easily conceal the contradictions between its pro-capitalist economic and social policy and the demagogy of behaving as a representative of ‘ordinary people’. There is no need to panic at the rise of the AfD, but we should certainly be seriously concerned. Particularly as, in opposition, the AfD shifts the political climate to the right and especially within the CDU. 

The election successes in the home state of Höcke’s ‘wing’ also strengthen the openly right-wing extremist part of the party. He has already announced that he is preparing for the elections for the party executive board in autumn. At the same time, the AfD will be exposed to greater pressure to adapt. Soon we can expect to hear voices within the Saxon or Brandenburg CDU about the need to ‘integrate’ the AfD, to ‘neutralise’ ” it.

Participation in government would take some momentum out of the AfD’s protest and anti-establishment behaviour, especially against the background of the looming economic crisis. However, the experience of Austria shows that right-wing populists are not structurally weakened by this ‘exposure’. There, they were able to consolidate and drive the entire political establishment further to the right. However, the Austrian experience has also shown that right-wing extremists are forced onto the defensive or no longer perceptible at all when major social movements or even class struggles occur. Movements and class struggles do not automatically solve the problem of right-wing extremism, but lay the foundations for doing so.