Bitter split on left on show in seat of German government

Icy welcome from former colleagues for new party in Bundestag

When political change happens in German federal politics, it shows up first in the Bundestag seating plan – such as this week.

Unlike other parliaments with long benches, the Bundestag redesign a quarter century ago gave each MP their own seat with a special “Reichstag Blue” upholstery.

This arrangement worked fine for five parties and 699 seats back in 1999 – but has come up against its limits in an increasingly fragmented parliament with 736 MPs and a new, seventh, grouping.

The latest bitter split on Germany’s political left has ensured an icy welcome for 10 members of the new Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), founded on Saturday, in their assigned new seats alongside their former colleagues in the Linke (Left) party.


This midterm split – only the second in post-war German history – has left the Linke a shadow of its former self with just 28 seats, nine short of the 37 required to qualify as a full Bundestag parliamentary party.

This means more than just a cut to its €7.4 million tax-funded annual budget: it has had to vacate its parliamentary party rooms and fire about a third of its 128 Bundestag staff members.

Anything the parliamentary party owns worth anything has been – or will be – sold off to pay outstanding bills.

It’s a dramatic loss in prestige for the Linke, founded in 2007 after a merger of disillusioned Social Democrats (SPD) and the PDS, legal successor to East Germany’s ruling communist party.

At the weekend Gregor Gysi, co-founder of both the PDS and the Linke, attacked his long-time rival Wagenknecht for “stealing” 10 of the party’s seats.

“I mean, I’m vain but not even I would have dared name a party after myself,” he added bitterly.

Not even Gysi’s political experience and charisma could turn the party’s two warring camps – hard-left and pragmatist – into a coherent grouping. Instead their epic, internal feuds consumed time, energy and credibility – and the party never made it beyond the Bundestag opposition bench.

Though a tested coalition partner in eastern federal states – it heads the government in Thuringia – the Linke is struggling here, too. Things look particularly bleak in two other traditional eastern heartland states that go to the polls in September to choose new state governments.

In Saxony it has haemorrhaged support to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and polls put the party below the 5 per-cent cut-off for parliamentary representation. And that was before the Bundestag walkout of Wagenknecht, a popular eastern-raised politician.

With time short before the autumn state polls – and the European elections on June 9th – Linke leaders in Berlin are anxious to make the most of their new, reduced circumstances as a “grouping” rather than a full parliamentary party.

On Tuesday they protested that proposed new Bundestag arrangements for them, to be voted on this week, will stack the odds against them: curtailing both debate speaking time and parliamentary questions.

Halfway through this term, the Linke had posed 966 parliamentary questions, about 60 a month – with answers that triggered news cycles about everything from pensions to far-right extremism. New rules would limit them to 10 a month.

“Attempts to cap our questions would endanger our ability to operate effectively as parliamentary opposition,” said Dietmar Bartsch, a senior Linke MP and former parliamentary party co-chair.

On Tuesday Berlin’s ruling coalition promised a “fair procedure” for new rules and Linke co-leader Janine Wissler remains hopeful of last-minute concessions. Refusing her MPs more leeway to question government work would, she warned, represent a clear attempt to “prevent numbers and information coming to light about social injustice, poverty and arms exports”.