A Glance at the Political Fringes: AfD and Linke in the Run-up to the German Federal Elections
Beyond Laschet, Baerbock and Scholz
So far, the center-right Union, the Greens, the social-democratic SPD, and their candidates for chancellor have undoubtedly taken center stage in the German election campaign while the liberal FDP is positioning itself as self-styled kingmaker between the three. This leaves the right-wing populist AfD and the left party Die Linke to form the political fringes of the current political spectrum in Germany. Apart from their polar positions, AfD and Linke have little in common and continue to differ not only in content, but also in their relation to the other parties, their engagement with the democratic process, and their position toward the pluralistic political system overall.
Fundamental Protest: The AfD
Since its foundation in 2013, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany, AfD) follows a path of fundamental opposition against political positions and government policies, on which the other five major parties largely agree upon. Following years of further radicalization, the current AfD election program is the only one to call for a German exit from the European Union and its replacement with a “Europe of fatherlands” devoid of any integrational tendencies. Similar to other populist right-wing parties across Europe, migration is another core issue for the AfD. Here, the party proposes to severely limit migration by means of physical barriers and fences at German borders and a “deportation campaign”. The party has tried to capitalize on the Covid-19 pandemic by initially criticizing government restrictions as too hesitant and then opposing all Covid-19 measures from lockdowns to masks as illegal violations of fundamental rights. Their efforts to profit from popular discontent with these measures have largely failed, in part due to the constructive and less extreme criticism offered by the FDP.
Not only the AfD’s position on several political issues distinguishes it from the five other major parties, but also its doubtful commitment to the pluralistic and democratic political order in general. Following a series of inflammatory public remarks, scandals, and incidents, the youth organization of the AfD and several of the AfD’s regional associations are under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, while the observation of the whole party was put on hold for the duration of a respective court case. The far-right wing of the party, meanwhile, has already been officially termed as right-wing extremist. Despite the latter’s dissolution in 2020, the party remains riven between “moderates” such as the party’s federal spokesman Jörg Meuthen and right-wing members such as the AfD Thuringia regional association’s speaker Björn Höcke.
According to recent polling and the latest regional election in Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD continues to have strong support in some regions but is failing to break through in federal politics with 11% in the latest federal election polls. Although all parties have ruled out a coalition with the AfD at federal level, local and regional party associations have occasionally broken with these party lines.
Preventing Black-Green: Die Linke
In contrast, Die Linke, while also located on the fringe of the political spectrum, engages with and forms a part of the democratic process. The party especially champions the cause of social justice across all sectors, thus proposing a higher minimum wage, limited working hours, a capped manager income and the introduction of a basic income. To address the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, Die Linke advocates for a far-reaching government investment program to be financed by the introduction of a progressive wealth tax, the increase of the inheritance tax and a special property levy on assets of more than €2 million.
After a series of electoral and political setbacks, the party attempted a fresh start with the nomination of their two lead candidates Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch. Especially Wissler’s nomination and her long-term membership in a radical left organization were met with controversy. Despite her and Bartsch’s calls for unity, internal rivalries and struggles between the pragmatist and the ideological wing of the party continued, influential members such as the party’s finance policy spokesman and its foreign policy spokesman refused to run again for parliament, and a controversial party exclusion procedure against another long-term party member Sahra Wagenknecht exacerbated internal party tensions further.
Unlike the AfD, Die Linke is an established part of the German political constellation. For example, it is currently part of governing coalitions in the city states of Bremen and Berlin and heads the state government of Thuringia. Its chances to be part of the federal governing coalition after the elections in September are, however, very slim. The only coalition remotely likely to include Die Linke at a federal level would be with the SPD and Greens (green-red-red coalition). Despite sharing overlap on many issues, this coalition is unlikely to leave the speculative realm. What is more, the Greens have been orienting themselves for months towards the center and a possible coalition with the Union. Even if a green-red-red coalition were to get enough votes – which current polls suggest it would not – a few stark differences, especially in foreign policy, could become “dealbreakers” for a governing coalition. Here, Die Linke calls for a German exit from NATO, a collective security organization including Russia and the end to all foreign missions of the Federal Armed Forces. Finally, being currently placed at around 7% in the polls, Die Linke even has to fear being not represented in parliament at all, should they fall under the five-percent hurdle.
The Fringes of the Political Spectrum in the 2021 Elections
Both the AfD and Die Linke are highly unlikely to find themselves in the post-Merkel government, albeit for different reasons. Yet, their success could have significant direct and indirect impact on the next government. In 2017, their strong performance already significantly limited coalition options and forced a renewal of the grand coalition between the currently governing parties CDU and SPD. This year, another strong performance could force a three-party governing coalition for the first time in decades at federal level. Beyond this role, both parties will be able to shape and drive political discourses from the opposition seats. Die Linke will emphasize social justice issues above all else and in certain instances work with the center parties. The AfD, meanwhile, will most likely follow its path of fundamental opposition and further radicalize on issues such as Euroskepticism, migration, the Covid-19 measures, and climate denialism. AfD and Linke might thus be irrelevant for the coalition negotiations following the upcoming elections. They are and will, however, continue to set the frame and the fringes of German political discourse.
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.