Katja Kipping, co-chair of the German party The Left (Die Linke), recently visited Belgrade to get informed about local political circumstances and prepare for German parliamentarian elections in September.
The Left’s delegation focused on visiting spaces and organizations that logistically and infrastructurally serve the refugees of whom a large number is attempting to reach Germany. This group of officials could see direct consequences of policies dictated to peripheral states by EU and Germany at the location of deserted warehouses behind Belgrade’s main train station, where another inhumane episode of antirefugee agenda is currently unfolding.
Along with co-chairing The Left, Katja Kipping has been a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) since 2005, where she was elected as the party’s lead candidate for the state of Saxony and city of Dresden. Kipping was a town councilor in Dresden, her birthplace, from 1999 to 2003, and a delegate in the Saxony state parliament from 1999 to 2004.
We talked with her about the incoming elections in Germany and the party’s political positions on important national social and economic issues, as well as its stand on the problem of right populism and relations between European center and periphery.
There is a fun story that Donald Trumps victory helped “Die Linke” to gain new members?
Indeed, after the election of Trump as US president, within a week 300 new members joined the party, and most of them are young people. This is quite good, because in Germany we had an atmosphere of post-politics for decades, and new generations were raised in the mood that it doesn’t matter if you are left or right, you don’t have to take sides and so on. But now, along the refugee question and with the rise of right wing populism worldwide, we see a polarization of political debate and there is a setting in which people want to take sides.
And of course, if you look only at the rise of right wing populism it is very scary, but a large part of the younger generation is really taking the side of humanity. This is all in all very promising.
In September you will have parliamentary elections in Germany. What are the main political issues for the parties?
We have a very interesting situation right now. Usually in Germany, other parties are entering the campaign with a clear statement about what coalition they are aiming for after the elections. But now not even the biggest parties (CDU, SPD) make that type of statement. They are all open for nearly everything.
The political climate in Germany changed. The social democrats decided that their front man will be a “new” guy (Martin Schulz), but what we know from his previous career he is not what you could consider a left wing social democrat. But nevertheless their choice is proving that there is a need for more social justice, and social democrats are rising in the surveys at the moment.
Surveys are also showing that over 70% of the voters are expressing a wish for change. I would say that the current success of SPD, at least in the surveys, is the expression of the deep rooted wish of the voters for a left alternative to chancellor Merkel.
Where are these new potential SPD voters coming from and are they potential voters for Die Linke also?
They are coming from the non-voters segment, from people who are undecided and from other parties. That change of mood is rather promising, because for months only a couple of questions dominated the public discourse – refugees and the fear of terrorism. And now finally the questions of social politics are dominating the public discourse; which neoliberal reforms could be changed, and what can we do in order to guarantee pension to everybody. And this is the debate where we as a left party have very concrete answers and concepts.
What are your strategies to communicate those policy proposals with the public? And what kind of feedback are you getting from party members and voters?
We are just at the beginning of the election campaign but the statement that I’m making is the following one – only a strong left can guarantee that German society will really move forward to more social justice.
And beside this I also argue that we can make some social progress within capitalism, but we should never forget that mechanisms of capitalist exploitation are creating some limits. We are the only party that is saying – ok, if you really want social justice you have to overcome capitalism.
Off course no one thinks that Bundestag will provide laws that will destroy capitalism, but nevertheless we should speak about the need for a complete change in the economy.
The refugees-question still remains very important in Germany. What is the position of Die Linke, and how will you fight the right our task is to shift the perspective wing on this issue?
First, when it comes to racism we have to be clear. If you try to copy the right wing, if you take over their patterns of explanation, at the end of the day you will strengthen the right wing populist position. So we have to be very clear and always say no to racism.
Secondly, we are fostering dialog in poor neighborhoods. We are going from door to door, presenting ourselves and just asking people what is bothering them and what they would like to change. Then we speak about question of pensions, rising rents etc.
And, third approach is that we are arguing for social benefits for everybody. For example, we need more teachers in the schools which is very helpful for the refugee students and their families but also for German pupils in schools who need more support from the teachers. Also, we need more affordable housing that the state needs to build. Again this could be helpful to refugees but also to Germans.
So, we are not arguing for social benefits for special groups but for everybody.
There were some discussions and misunderstandings in the party about this. Does the party have a coherent position on this topic?
When it comes to the election program, that decision will be made by voting on the party congress. So that position will be very clear.
But, within our party we have a minority that thinks ‘ok, we don’t have to touch this topic’. I’m convinced that we can’t be part of a tendency to silence the fate of refugees. On the contrary, we have to speak not only about the numbers but also about concrete fates of those who had to flee from their country.
You are coming from the city of Dresden where the right wing is very strong. The populist movement Pegida was formed there …
Yes, we have weekly racist events, fortunately the numbers are declining.
When in Dresden, I’m meeting very often the other side of the city’s civil society, there are thousands of people who are active in different projects that are helping refugees. But these people are so busy in supporting the refugee that they don’t have time for promotion in the city. They choose to invest their time in supporting and helping people instead of hate.
When we are on the street with our materials we meet common people that don’t share our views, but usually most of them have respect to our clear position on the question of migration. When we start to talk, then they start to speak about small pensions, or that the rent they are paying has been rising. Then we start to speak about the reasons for the rising houses prices, then we speak about privatization of communal flats, about market speculations with housing. In the end you come out with the conclusion that it is not the refugees that are responsible for this problem.
So our task is to shift the perspective. Off course this cannot be done with one conversation but you can foster a change of perspective. And that is what I’m doing and many of my comrades are doing.
You were advocating for unconditional basic income, do you still think that it could be part of the solution for material problems that people are facing?
When it comes to unconditional basic income we still have a controversial debate in our party, but I’m an advocate of this idea.
I’m convinced by the necessity of unconditional basic income. Because this is fulfilling the idea of democracy. By this I mean that if everybody has the right to be politically active in democracy, then you need a certain minimum covered – if you are starving you can’t be politically active.
And this is the right that you should have even if you are not successful in the labor market, or even if you are not successful in convincing any social benefit office that you are a very good citizen. This should be a human right, and that is an economic complement of democratic rights.
I think that more and more people are fascinated by this idea just by speaking about how society could change or could improve under the condition of unconditional basic income.
Is this possible in the age of austerity? Some critics are saying that unconditional basic income could become an excuse for even more austerity.
Austerity has to be stopped! It is undemocratic, antisocial and contra productive from an economic point of view, because if the economy is going down social cuts are the worst think that you can do. If you want to improve the economy people need money to spend. So I would say that basic income is also reasonable from an economic point of view.
Let’s go back to Dresden. We said that the right wing is very present, but the antifascist scene is also very strong there. What is the connection between the party and other left organizations?
We have a very close cooperation. Antifascist events are always organized with the help from members of my party. Within the parliamentary group we established a contact office that organizes parliamentary observers and supports events of the social movements.
There are not a lot of refugees in Saxony, so where is the fear from refugees and Muslims coming from?
The lower the number of refugees is within the area the higher the fear of refugees is. So the best thing what you could do in order to prevent more people to follow the right wing populism is just to organize meetings. You have to bring people together to meet refugees and to talk about problems they have.
The county of Saxony for the last 27 years has been governed by very conservative governments. And any antifascist activism has been blamed for being ‘left wing radicalism’, it has been criminalized and so on. The government never paid attention to Neo-Nazi organizing. So whenever we tried to explain to them that it is a big problem that they are organizing the youth and if you don’t have public youth clubs the Neo-Nazis are there to offer them something. But they were always saying that there is also left wing radicalism and that they have to fight them as well. So it is an old anti-totalitarian approach which is absolutely wrong and it is not aiming at the right target.
Off course our fight for social guarantees is the best prevention of rising racism. And besides, we have to go into the educational system. We need teachers who really practice democracy with the kids. But unfortunately and again it is the fault of the Saxon government, they established an atmosphere where the teachers are refusing to talk about politics and if they don’t talk about politics the neo-Nazis will approach to those kids whit their anti humanitarian politics.
During your visit to Serbia you had a chance to see the so called Balkan route …
The situation with the refugees here is the direct result of the failure of the EU politics. And it’s a direct result of the official closure of the Balkan route and, of Hungarian ignorance against right of asylum seekers.
So I wanted to see with my own eyes what the results of these anti humanitarian European politics are in order to report back in Germany. There we usually speak about numbers, and now coming back from Serbia I can tell stories about concrete people and families. And also I only recognized here that the German government has huge responsibility because the officials in Serbia are directly reacting to the signals which are sent by the German government. As long as the German government was holding the flag of human rights saying how they want to prove that we are good Europeans, and how we take care of human rights, the Serbian government was following. But as soon as the German government started to say ‘oh, we don’t care anymore, we just want to stop those migrants, we don’t care about the right to asylum’ etc. then the official politics in Serbia also changed.
The right for asylum is very important because it is the lesson learned directly from the darkest chapters of German history during the Nazi regime. If we don’t want to repeat this chapter of history that people are just depending on a lack of the right to asylum then we have to defend it. No matter if it is popular or not. And if right wing populism is rising and we stay silent, they become stronger day by day, so I would say that humanity has to become offensive.
This relation between the German and the Serbian government is the political paradigm for center – periphery relations, and it has its political and economic (material) consequences. Is it possible to change this exploitative relation?
How could these relations be changed? Well obviously we have to change the government in Germany. We have to change the course of the EU, and of course one government is not enough for changing this.
We have put so much hope in Greece after the electoral victory of Syriza and then we realized that they were blackmailed. The director of this blackmailing was the German finance minister. Germany is economically the strongest country in the EU, and as such very influential, so we have to change its course if we want to support left wing governments in the EU like in Portugal or Greece.
And to go back to concrete manifestation of the “periphery”, what are your impressions about the situation in the barracks?
We took a picture – on the one side there were the barracks with inhuman condition and on the other was this big investment project Belgrade Waterfront – that is Europe. When it comes to some prestigious project governments have money and when it comes to human beings they pretend to be short of money. So it is not a question whether you can afford it, it is just a question of priorities.
And that’s the image of Europe?
You can find this kind of prestigious investment projects in almost every big European city. And fortunately, you also can see that this is always a good opportunity for gathering different groups in order to protest against this and say that this is not the way we want to develop our city, we have other priorities.
In Berlin for example we had the Media Spree project, that unfortunately finally succeeded but it was also the reason for many groups to come together and protest. I know that in Belgrade you have huge demonstrations against development projects here.