Understanding the performance of the Left Party (die Linke) in Western Germany : a comparative evaluation of cartel and social cleavage theories as explanatory frameworks

Lawson-Last, Valerie (2015) Understanding the performance of the Left Party (die Linke) in Western Germany : a comparative evaluation of cartel and social cleavage theories as explanatory frameworks. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


In 2007 Germany’s Left Party (DIE LINKE) won its first seats in the regional parliament of a western federal state, Bremen. This success contrasted with the failure of its predecessor, the PDS, to establish an electoral base beyond the eastern states. Today the Left Party is represented in eastern and western legislatures and challenges established coalition constellations both at federal and regional level. How can we understand the Left Party’s significant breakthrough in the West? The existing literature has sought to analyse and interpret the Left Party’s origins, success and challenges, and has also emphasised the importance of the western states, both for the PDS and the Left Party. This thesis offers new insights by evaluating the respective strengths of two distinct theories, Cartel Theory and Social Cleavage Theory, as explanatory frameworks for the Left Party’s breakthrough. The theories are also appraised in a detailed case study of Bremen. The study examines whether the party displayed the organisational traits, parliamentary focus and electoral strategy identified in Cartel Theory. The investigation of Social Cleavage Theory explores the mobilisation and framing of class-based protest in the anti-Hartz demonstrations, and analyses election results for evidence of a realignment of class-based support. The existing empirical data is supplemented by qualitative evidence obtained through questionnaire responses from Left Party members and sympathisers in Bremen.

The final chapter considers the evidence as to whether Bremen is representative of other western states or an exceptional case. The overall findings suggest that indications of organisational features and the parliamentary focus associated with Cartel Theory did not explain the increase in Left Party support. Also, the redistributive character of the party’s programme countered, rather than converged with, the prevailing policy offer. However, WASG ties to organised labour and the SPD helped establish the Left Party in the tradition of social democracy and the political mainstream. Protest and the demand for social justice were indeed mobilised and framed in class terms and the Left Party attracted the votes of the unemployed and workers, as well as organised labour, with a partial realignment towards the Left Party, notably in SPD strongholds. The thesis concludes that class cleavage and class-based voting more strongly account for the Left Party’s electoral breakthrough.

The originality of the thesis lies in its approach of combining theoretical analysis with an in-depth local case study, supplemented by empirical evidence. The thesis also suggests avenues of future research that may validate or challenge the strength of the two explanatory frameworks over time.

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