RED Menace

Leftist Rise Poses Problems for German Social Democrats

Bodo Ramelow-DPA-CHANGED
Bodo Ramelow could soon be the Left Party's first premier.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If the center-left Social Democrats become junior partner in a coalition with the far-left Left Party, at the state level, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel could have a harder time pushing his party to the center nationally.

  • Facts


    • The far-left Left Party is made up of successors to the former East Germany’s ruling communists and far-left trade unionists and disaffected SPD members from western Germany.
    • The more moderate Social Democratic Party has not acted as junior partner to Left Party on a state level for 25 years.
    • The SPD refuses to enter into a coalition with the Left Party at a national level, primarily due to their foreign policy differences.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

The state elections on Sunday in Thuringia could have repercussions far beyond the borders of the eastern German state, especially for Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party. If the center-left SPD and the socialist Left Party agree to form a government – at a pinch with the Green party – then the Social Democrats in Thuringia will end up having helped make Bodo Ramelow the Left Party’s first ever state premier.

What type of coalition will rule Thuringia remained unclear as of Monday morning. Sunday’s election results showed the ruling Christian Democratic Union party gaining 33.5 percent of the vote compared to 31.2 percent four years ago. The Left Party inched up to 28.2 percent versus 27.4 percent in 2009. The big winner was the newly-formed euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany party, which wasn’t present in the 2009 election and grabbed 10.6 percent of the vote.

There were many losers, including the SPD, which plunged to 12.4 percent from 18.5 percent. On Sunday evening Mr. Gabriel asked the mayor of Erfurt, the state’s capital, to take over the SPD’s state leadership. Andreas Bausewein, 41, is the most popular SPD politician, according to polls reported by an Erfurt newspaper, the Thuringia Allgemeine.  Mr. Gabriel reportedly blames Heike Taubert, the party’s top candidate in the state election, for the election disaster and wants her out. Mr. Bausewein refused to comment to the paper, but said the SPD state leaders have to first analyze the elections result in a meeting on Monday evening.

In the mathematical world of German politics it all comes down to which parties can work together in a coalition that has more votes than the others. The Sunday election left various possibilities. The CDU obtained 34 seats. The Left party 28, the SPD 12, the AfD 11 and the Greens 6.

If the CDU continues its current coalition with the SPD, in a so-called grand coalition, it would have 46 seats. A coalition of the Left Party, SPD and the Greens would also have 46 seats. Both constellations would see weak governments with a slim majority of just one.

It is unlikely that a coalition will be formed immediately, according to German press reports, as the CDU needs to negotiate with its potential partners. Christine Lieberknecht, the current CDU state premier, has said she wants to talk with the SPD — but also with the Greens. Getting the Greens, with their 6 votes in the parliament, would make an CDU-SPD-Greens coalition much stronger against any potential opposition.

A possible alternative is the Left-SPD-Green coalition, but the possibility of being a junior partner to the Left Party carries risks for Mr. Gabriel and the path he hopes to take to federal elections in 2017. For almost 25 years, the SPD has mostly defined the rules of any alliance with the Left, which was born out of a marriage of ex-communist Eastern Germans, disgruntled western German trade unionists and disaffected SPD members. If the SPD becomes the Left Party’s junior partner in Thuringia, it will have set a dangerous precedent. The Left Party, in turn, would feel it has more power on the federal level and no reason to moderate its politics.

It should surprise no one then that Mr. Gabriel is playing down the national importance of the state election in Thuringia.

It would then become more difficult for Mr. Gabriel, even after the SPD’s leftward lurch failed miserably in the 2013 federal elections, to push through a more centrist course and build more economic competence within his own party. A fresh outbreak of party infighting, with the potential of that becoming as self-destructive as in 2009, is his most dangerous scenario.

It should surprise no one then that Mr. Gabriel is playing down the national importance of the state election in Thuringia. He and the party general secretary, Yasmin Fahimi, always stress that it is state SPD parties alone who should make decisions about a new coalition. The fact that the programs of both left-leaning parties hardly differ is something they both are trying their best to ignore. It is mostly the SPD party’s left wing, led by Ralf Stegner, that was appealing to voters in Thuringia before the elections.

If the Left Party-SPD coalition does happen, the only hope Mr. Gabriel has is if the leftists quickly becoming disenchanted with actually governing, resulting in more power swinging to the SPD. That scenario, however, is not likely with Mr. Ramelow in charge.

This article was translated by David Andersen. Greg Ring also contributed. To contact the author: 

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!