As Germany Prepares to Vote Sunday, Social Justice Policy Is on the Line

Bernd Riexinger, the leader of liberal political organization Die Linke weighs in on Angela Merkel and his country’s upcoming national election.

by Alexis Chemblette
Sep 22 2017, 10:30pm

Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, is running for a fourth term and topping every poll. Her party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) is heading towards a landslide victory in the Bundestag (German Parliament) election on September 24th. The wave of political renewal that swept the West, propelling liberals in France and the Netherlands and populists in the UK and the US can't be denied, but Merkel seems unshakable.

Merkel's tenure as Chancellor is marked by strong macroeconomic indicators. When Merkel came to power, Germany's unemployment rate hit double digits, today the figure stands at less than four percent. Germany has the most robust European economy with the highest GDP on the continent. Its net exports are only second to China's, and it is one of few European countries to run a budget surplus.

Merkel also proved resilient when advancing policies that divided her conservative base while seducing progressive voters. In 2015, at the peak of the Syrian migrant crisis, she introduced a bold plan to welcome one million refugees. Since Merkel took office, her energy policy has enabled Germany to wean off nuclear power, even if it meant temporarily reviving unprofitable coal plants. But one could make a harsher assessment of her record for German society is becoming increasingly unequal.

A recent study published by the IMF revealed that 16 percent of the German population is living under the poverty line. The lowest-paid 40 percent of German workers are earning less in real terms than 20 years ago. Merkel has opted for fiscal responsibility for investments in infrastructure and youth, pandering to a soaring number of retired boomers. Her main contender Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, ran a campaign that never took off.

Shulz's party, the Social Democrats (SPD) was unable to tap into growing popular discontent with austerity. The Social Democrats bear a bit of the blame for Merkel's record, playing second fiddle twice as the junior partner in a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats. Moreover, working-class voters still feel the effects of the Hartz reforms passed under Merkel's Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. The Hartz reforms are a set of laws that raised the retirement age to 67, slashed social benefits and created flexible job contracts 'mini-jobs' for wages as low 500 euros-- about $600-- a month.

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The SPD's record has fueled the rise of Die Linke, a progressive party that seeks to curb income inequality, help the working poor and elevate the role of the state in building prosperity. The party feeds off a broad coalition of unions, grassroots organizations and youth social movements.

But postwar German politics are steeped in a centrist tradition that has hampered Die Linke's progress. Die Linke is struggling to reproduce the successes of similar movements in the West such as Podemos in Spain, France Insoumise in France or Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign in the United States.

VICE Impact met with Bernd Riexinger, the leader of Die Linke, to discuss how his party and its grassroots partners plan to mobilize youth, drive social change, and shape the opposition to conservative politics in the future.

What are Die Linke's policy priorities?

DIE LINKE's platform is centered around social justice. We also advocate a pacifist foreign policy and our economy's environmental and sustainable transition. We want to abolish precarious work and push for higher wages and shorter working hours. We want to avoid turning more employees into the working poor. We want real employment, not involuntary part-time or overtime work, and we want the recognition of work side effects and burn-outs. We would like to increase the minimum wage to 12 Euros an hour and allocate a universal minimum pension of 1050 euros per month. We would like to build more public housing and implement stronger rent controls to keep working-class communities in city-centers.

And what is your agenda for German youth?

We want to eradicate child poverty and foster equal access to education. Around 40 percent of children raised by single parents live in poverty. As an immediate step, we'd like to increase child allowance to 328 Euros per month [which is equal to $390]. We would also like to introduce free meals and a right to all-day-care in schools and kindergartens. We oppose hikes in tuition fees. Kids and young adults should be able to ride public transports for free. We believe that young people in Germany should have the right to vote by the time they turn 16. We also want to legalize marijuana.

In France, unsuccessful socialist candidate Benoit Hamon campaigned on the idea of a universal basic income. What are the bold ideas that you wish to introduce in the German public debate?

DIE LINKE supports universal basic income but focuses primarily on the redistribution of wealth. Income inequality fuels our society's ills. We would like to see money shifting from the private sector to the public sector, from corporations' profits to workers' wages and so on. The rich have never been richer but we're still slashing taxes on financial assets, income and corporate profits. There is a dire need for public investments. Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, lacks kindergartens and underpays its teachers, our schools are rundown, and our infrastructure is crumbling. How can we accept that? The taxes we propose could raise 216 billion Euros. We would like to allocate those funds to ensuring free education from kindergarten to university, public jobs, public housing, energy transition, and restoring our welfare-state.

"Mrs. Merkel fears social unrest so she won't go the extra mile, but her fiscally conservative policies and austerity measures are real, and plaguing the lives of millions of poor people."

Angela Merkel is ahead in the polls but German society is becoming increasingly unequal. How do you explain that?

Angela Merkel approach is more consensual than former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but her agenda and actions are similar. She is telling people with lower income that change can't come through redistribution and welfare. But when she realizes that certain issues like marriage equality or minimum wage gain traction she is smart enough to jump on the bandwagon. Mrs. Merkel fears social unrest so she won't go the extra mile, but her fiscally conservative policies and austerity measures are real, and plaguing the lives of millions of poor people.

How do you assess Merkel's record on issues where she defied her political camp?

Merkel defends a brand of green capitalism. She pushed for renewable energy in the wake of Fukushima. But she's about mitigating the effects of capitalism not ushering in a new economic era. The same goes for migrants. Mrs. Merkel honored the Geneva convention because the people of Germany were moved by the crisis. Yes, she had the courage to defend her decision. But since then the German government tightened the Asylum Act and refugees have been deported to unsafe countries such as Afghanistan. The chancellor even brought up the idea of building a fence around Northern Africa to prevent refugees from coming to Europe.

The SPD's campaign ran out of steam under Schulz's leadership. Why do you claim to offer the real alternative?

Since the Social Democrats espoused a neo-liberal agenda and austerity, workers and poor people have lost faith in them. Mr. Schulz has tried to rebrand the SPD, but he's not touching on the real issues. The Social Democrats don't want to address property tax, nor have they introduced new ideas to combat poverty. The SPD has nothing to offer to the "hard-working men and women". We do.

How do you account for Die Linke not being able to reproduce the successes of left-wing movements in Spain, France or even the United States?

There is a fundamental difference between DIE LINKE and Mr. Corbyn or Mr. Sanders: we decided to build this progressive coalition outside of a mainstream center-left party. In Germany, people who held similar ideas left the Social Democrats to found a new party together with unions and social movements. Germany has a dualized workforce with workers making a good living in the export sector and those who struggle to make ends meet in the low-wage-sector. We must admit that we are only appealing to the latter at the moment.

We see it as our challenge within the next few years to grow the 9-12 percent hurdle and position ourselves clearly within society and the every-day labor fights.

The movements described above are often youth-led at the grassroots level. How does Die Linke plan to capture youth activism in Germany?

DIE LINKE has a constant stream of new members and the majority is under 35. We are supporting this process through seminars, campaigns on issues that are never discussed as well as social movement policies, and organizing. We also have many young members of Parliament and candidates in our party. Germany has an aging population, which explains why youth support for Die Linke and the generational shift on economic and social issues is not yet translating into electoral success. But we feel that a majority of young people stands behind our ideals and we won't betray their convictions.

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Which advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, unions, and associations is Die Linke working with? How do you coordinate efforts? Why does it matter?

DIE LINKE wants to unite all progressive elements of German society. We want to mobilize all forces of the left and be their political expression in Parliament. That is why we built alliances with social movements, e.g. TTIP protests, anti-racism campaigns, etc. We are cooperating with unions, not only on the top/managerial, but on the middle level. We need networks in order to bring about hegemonic change in German society. I believe that Germany represents the essence of global neo-liberal ideology. When the balance of power shifts here, it will have an impact in Europe and globally.

How would you encourage our audience and the German youth to get involved to achieve the progress you seek to advance?

We are many. DIE LINKE cannot achieve is goals in Parliament alone. A better world is possible if we build a broad coalition behind our ideals for the many, not the few.

Angela Merkel
Bernd Riexinger
German National Election
German Politics