Oskar Lafontaine: ‘We want to govern’

The results for the German left party Die Linke in the August 30 regional elections are impressive, particularly the 21.3% achieved in the federal state of Saarland. But is this the beginning of the end for the “party of opposition”? Tina Becker takes a closer look

Germany’s so-called ‘super Sunday’ on August 30 was not so super for everybody. The big parties were big losers. Because the parliamentary elections for the national Bundestag are less than a month away (September 27), the elections results in three of the 16 German federal states (Thuringia, Saxony and Saarland) have been interpreted as a ‘dry run’.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union of chancellor Angela Merkel did worse than predicted - which means the bad results for the Social Democrats (SPD) did not stand out quite as much as expected. The fact that the SPD share of the vote in the east German federal state of Thuringia, for example, increased from a measly 9.8% to a scarcely less measly 10.4% is hardly worth celebrating - especially as the lowest ever turnout means that, in reality, the number of voters remained roughly the same. The only ones for whom Sunday really was ‘super’ are the smaller parties. The Greens, the Liberal Democrats (FDP) and Die Linke increased their share of the vote almost everywhere and are likely to play the kingmaker in the regional government coalitions that will now be formed.

Clearly, the voters have punished the governing SPD-CDU ‘grand’ national coalition - in particular for failing to come to grips with the worsening financial crisis. Much has been made of ‘green shoots’ in the economy and claims that GDP is slowly starting to grow again. But in reality more and more Germans are experiencing the capitalist crisis at first hand. Pumping billions of euros of taxpayers’ money into the economy - which is so dependent on its exports - has slowed down the downward spiral, but it has not stopped rising unemployment, which will soon reach 10%. This will increase even more when, in the next few weeks, the state-subsidised Kurzarbeit scheme ends. To avoid layoffs, employers have put more than a million Germans on a shorter working week, with part of their cut in wages made good by taxpayer subsidy. But such short-term measures can in most cases only delay, not prevent, mass sackings.

Also, the end of the popular ‘car scrapping scheme’ (car owners received €2,500 for scrapping vehicles at least nine years old) in two weeks time will see an estimated 90,000 people in the car industry lose their jobs within weeks, with many more thousands to follow in the months after, according to the conservative Roland Berger Institute.1 Then there is what the German edition of the Financial Times dubs a “kind of standstill agreement” between the government and industry: “After the elections, the message to Germans will be very different,” says the chair of the huge transport and engineering company MAN, in preparation for what the FT describes as “planned layoffs on a massive scale. Germany is suffering from overproduction.” The FT recommends that German companies “slim down” just like those in America.2

Taking its cue from the FT, the CDU has come out openly as the pro-business party that it is. Germany’s aristocratic finance minister, Dr Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has just published his suggestions on how to deal with the financial crisis: he wants to abolish laws that protect employees from arbitrary dismissal; cancel regional and sectional agreements on minimum wages; and increase VAT while reducing the tax bill for the rich. Not much ‘caring conservatism’ there.

SPD and full employment

More interesting are the efforts of the SPD, which has rather desperately tried to come out on the side of the ‘little man’. A month ago, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, promised that an SPD government would bring “full employment”.

This is foolish on a number of levels. If he was talking about achieving the kind of low unemployment that Germany experienced in the 1960s and 70s, he conveniently forgot to mention that this was part and parcel of a concerted attempt to buy off workers in West Germany and stop them from ‘going red’. It was an extraordinary period which was linked to the existence of the Soviet Union. It cannot be repeated - especially as capitalism has no interest in doing so. In fact, under ‘normal’ conditions, capitalism is very much dependent on the ‘reserve army of labour’ - ie, all those not currently in paid work, the unemployed, housewives, carers etc. Competition amongst workers for jobs keeps down wages and helps prevent the organisation of the whole class. To promise ‘full employment’ in the middle of the worst financial crisis is close to madness. Steinmeier predictably got a lot of stick for it and has backtracked on it since.

However, the SPD is clearly attempting to reposition itself to the left. Steinmeier has attacked the “elbow mentality” of the CDU that was to blame for the current crisis. And who could forget the much-publicised comment by SPD chair Franz Müntefering, who in 2008 compared foreign investors who break up existing companies as “capitalism’s plague of locusts”. The SPD is clearly not just a “pro-capitalist party”, as, for example, the Socialist Party’s German section, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), dismisses it. Just like the Labour Party in Britain, it is a bourgeois workers’ party with two poles - although it has clearly been dominated by the right in recent years. The SPD has been in government since 1998 (first in coalition with the Greens and since 2005 with the CDU), during which time it has introduced some of the most draconian cuts in social benefits and working conditions.

The SPD is certainly not being pulled to the left by the (theoretically) still mighty German trade unions. They are failing the test miserably. Not a hint of the militancy that is being displayed by their French comrades. Maybe that is because the financial crisis has not hit France as hard. In any case, Merkel even felt the need to “thank the trade unions in this difficult period”. After a meeting with union leaders on August 28, she declared that both sides had agreed that “the government and the unions must work together so that we can get to where we were before the crisis started”.3

They seem happy to oblige. Most union leaders are cooperating in pushing through Kurzarbeit. In the case of troubled car maker Opel, the powerful shop stewards committee a few months ago even suggested that the workers should buy out the company (together with Opel traders), in a deal financed by a “voluntary cut in wages”.4 Not that they expected an increased say for the workers in the running of the company in return - the committee suggested that GM Motors should retain its majority on the company board.

No, it is the electoral success of Die Linke that has forced the SPD to nod in the direction of its working class roots.

‘Red-red’ coalitions

The success of Die Linke in the east German state of Thuringia, where it won 26.1% of the vote, was no big surprise. In most eastern regions, Die Linke is a real Volkspartei. This reflects the two very different component parts of the organisation that joined together in 2007: the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was the successor party of the ‘official communists’ running East Germany, while in the west disillusioned trade union cadre and ex-SPD members formed the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice). Here, Die Linke usually struggles to get 5% of the vote.

That is why the 21.3% in the west German Saarland look like a incredible success story for Die Linke. But it is not quite the case. It is mainly a success story for one man in Die Linke: Oskar Lafontaine, co-chair of both the parliamentary faction and the party itself. Not only was he chair of the SPD and finance minister in Gerhard Schröder’s national government (he resigned in 1999 over the introduction of a package of neoliberal policies). For 21 years before that, he ruled the Saarland: first as mayor of its capital, Saarbrücken, then as the state’s very popular first minister. Many people in the Saarland would have voted for him despite, not because of, his prominent role in Die Linke.

In any case, when it became clear that Die Linke would - for the first time - do very well in the west of Germany, the public perception of the party underwent a dramatic transition, almost overnight. Gone were the rather nasty ‘red socks’ campaigns, with which both the CDU and SPD tried to scare people away from voting Die Linke in the past. Only a few months ago, there was a big scandal when the SPD’s candidate for first minister in the west German state of Hesse reneged on an election promise not to form a coalition with Die Linke and asked it to support an SPD minority government with the Greens. The SPD locally and nationally rebelled, voted against its own candidate for first minister and now the CDU and FDP are in power there.

No such promises were given this time around. Quite the opposite. The SPD leadership had given its regional and local branches carte blanche to choose its coalition partners - including, specifically, the possibility of forming regional governments with Die Linke. Because they were aware that many former SPD supporters would vote Die Linke, the SPD candidates in those three regions very publicly played with the idea of ‘red-red’ coalitions. As did Die Linke. It was an almost embarrassingly harmonious election campaign. Both sides were keen to stress that, on a regional level, there is not much that keeps the parties apart: “It’s obvious that there are big programmatic overlaps between the SPD and the Linke in the Saar,” said Lafontaine. “It would be a joke if a party that is led by the former first minister and chief of the SPD had now totally different views compared to those of the SPD.”5 In Thuringia, Die Linke’s top candidate, Bodo Ramelow, was very clear throughout the campaign: “We want to govern.”6

It almost looks as if the SPD and Die Linke have come to an unwritten agreement. On a national level, they still condemn each other as “unelectable”. “As long as the SPD and the Greens support the war in Afghanistan and the cuts in pensions and unemployment benefits, there won’t be cooperation on a national level,” said Lafontaine just after the election.7 The SPD pretty much gives the same reasons. But on a regional level none of that matters. While in Saxony (where Die Linke picked up 20.6%, a marginally worse result than in 2004) there will be a CDU-FDP government, negotiations in Thuringia and Saarland are still ongoing. ‘Red-red’ coalitions look more than likely. And the unspoken word in all quarters is, that, while a national coalition of Die Linke and the SPD is ruled out right now, it is very much on the cards after the 2013 election.

So keen is Die Linke to prove its ‘government credentials’ to the SPD, that the Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests that Lafontaine might be on a mission to “re-unite the left”. Social democracy, according to the paper, is “still suffering from the traumatic 1917 split, which happened when the majority SPD supported the government’s war policy ... The two souls of social democracy sought out two different bodies. It is a similar situation today.”8

While the writer conveniently forgets to mention the formation of the Communist Party, he undoubtedly has a point when it comes to the aspirations of Lafontaine. He is a left social democrat who would have no problem rejoining the SPD if it moved a little bit further (bringing a not inconsiderable number of Die Linke members with him). In the east, the powerful Realo wing of the organisation (which makes up about 60% of the national executive) follows a different strategy: here, it is about the best way for Die Linke to replace the SPD.

At the moment, however, Lafontaine and the Realos are agreed on the tactic: taking part in ‘red-red’ coalitions. So far, Die Linke has done so only as a minority, at least on a regional level. In Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, it tried to justify the most draconian of cuts and closures by claiming they had been imposed on it by the SPD. Electoral support for Die Linke subsequently shrunk dramatically, especially in Berlin.

But in Thuringia the situation is different. For the first time, Die Linke could become the majority partner in a potential ‘red-red’ coalition (supported by the Greens). But no doubt, its politics would not be dramatically different from what it had been ‘forced’ to do as a minority partner. How could they be? Regional governments have limited powers - in education, for example. A ‘red-red’ coalition could scrap student fees, but that’s about it. On the other hand, regional governments have to enforce some of the swingeing cuts and vicious attacks on working conditions that the national government has ordered. As a minority in Saarland or a majority in Thuringia the Linke will be forced to manage capitalism, which especially in this period will mean cuts, cuts and cuts again.


There is a relatively healthy opposition within the party which argues against the current trajectory of the leadership. I would guess that around 40% of the national executive are critical of the majority’s line, to one degree or another.

This trend is mainly represented by two of the party’s platforms. The Sozialistische Linke was launched by the Socialist Workers Party’s German section, Marx21 (formerly Linksruck). But its 200 or so comrades are in a very strange position: more than a dozen of them have paid employment within Die Linke - most of them work for MPs or are members of regional parliaments themselves. Officially, they argue against government participation. But not particularly loudly.

A more effective opposition comes from the Antikapitalistische Linke (AL), which also argues against the neo-Keynesianism of the party’s very tame programme for the federal elections, Consistently social: for democracy and peace.9 Before the current crisis of capitalism, there was a certain space on the left of the SPD for the kind of warmed-up social democracy advocated by the leadership of Die Linke. But now this position is firmly occupied by the government itself, which has been nationalising banks, subsiding struggling companies to avoid layoffs, while pumping billions into the economy. One reason why on a national level Die Linke has lost support ever since the financial crisis started. It currently stands at 10% in the polls, which is, of course, excellent - but not as good as the 14% it enjoyed only a year ago.

The AL has also argued that the party should confirm its commitment to anti-capitalism and socialism. What it means by that, however, is a different matter. The Kommunistische Plattform plays a leading role within the AL - and the vast majority of its members display a certain softness for the old East Germany. So their vision of ‘socialism’ is likely to be very different from the one that we in the CPGB hold. However, about half of AL members come from the west and most have had their fair share of experience on the revolutionary left and would still describe themselves as revolutionaries, socialists or communists.

After a number of heated debates within the party (gleefully reported by sections of the bourgeois media), the third draft of Die Linke’s election programme was finally adopted in June. The leadership made some small concessions to the left, but they show that the left cannot simply be ignored. For example, while the Realos argued for a national minimum wage of €8, the left argued for - and won- a commitment to €10. While the Realos thought the unemployed should survive on €435 a month, the left fought - and won- a commitment to €500. The programme now also mentions “democratic socialism” and commits the party to fight for an “economic system that overcomes capitalism, step by step”.

Of course, what the leadership means by ‘democratic socialism’ or ‘overcoming capitalism’ “step by step” is anyone’s guess - it certainly is not explained in the party’s convoluted and pretty dull election programme. Just as in Britain, the left in Germany is in ideological crisis.

The next chance for the left to cohere its forces and work out a consistent alternative strategy will be during the forthcoming debate over the party’s programme, which will start after the elections. Clearly, there is a desperate need for an organised opposition that is democratic, socialist, anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist - and we are seeing the beginnings of it. It would have a real chance of taking on the rightwing leadership - especially in this very fluid political period. We would encourage all communists in Germany to get involved in this process.