Success poses new questions
With an astonishing 11.9% of the vote at the September 27 national elections, the German left party Die Linke now has 76 members of parliament. Tina Becker reports
The September 27 general election was ï¿½historicï¿½ on a number of levels:
- At 70.8%, the turnout was the lowest since the formation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949.
- Both the conservative CDU (33.8%) and the social democratic SPD (23%) achieved their worst results since 1949. While the CDU lost 1.4% in comparison to the last election in 2005, the SPD lost a massive 11.2%.
- The Liberal Democrats (FDP, 14.6%), the Greens (10.7%) and Die Linke (11.9%) all achieved their best results ever.
- Germany now has a five-party system. In each of the 16 federal states, all five easily passed the so-called ï¿½5% hurdleï¿½, an extremely undemocratic barrier designed to keep out smaller parties.
On a less scientific level, it was also one of the most boring elections of all time, in which the CDU and the SPD, partners in the ï¿½grand coalitionï¿½ of the last four years, refused to attack each other. Their extremely muted election campaign culminated in a TV ï¿½debateï¿½ between the two party leaders, Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in which ï¿½they threw cotton balls at each other for a bit, then went for a drinkï¿½, as a Die Linke press release fittingly describes it.
The last four years were a rather civilised union between two parties with almost identical programmes. At the beginning, one of the two might have tried to introduce small changes - but the other party quickly vetoed it.
And then the financial crisis hit. Both parties quickly united to hold off the worst effects. They nationalised banks, rescued companies on the verge of going bust, introduced the popular car-scrapping scheme and extended Kurzarbeit (where a part of an employerï¿½s wage is paid for by the state). In addition, they spent ï¿½80 billion on two Konjunkturpakete (programmes for economic growth). Because of these measures, unemployment is a lot lower than it would have been. The official figure stands at 8.3%, but is expected to rise to around 10% soon, when some of the above measures come to an end.
Bad time to be in government
This might well be one of the worst times in living history to form a government. Like most other countries, Germany is deep in debt. According to the International Monetary Fund, Germanyï¿½s public debt will rise to 91.4% of its GDP by 2014 (Britain will be at 87.7%)1. Because of the economic slowdown, the government is faced with a reduction in tax revenues of up to 20%. Following the logic of capitalist book-keeping, the new administration will have to make some dramatic cuts to pay for the crisis.
No bourgeois government can emerge from this crisis smelling of roses. After the success of the FDP, which increased its representation by 32 seats, the CDU has dumped the SPD and quickly gone back to its ï¿½natural coalition partnerï¿½. However, in comparison to previous ï¿½black-yellowï¿½ coalitions (the last one under Helmut Kohl oversaw German unification), this one is likely to be dominated by the rapid end of what remains of the post World War II social democratic compromise, pushed along by the FDP.
There will be tensions between the CDU and the FDP. In fact, they have already come to the surface. To understand those tensions, one has to grasp that the CDU is not just the German version of the British Tories. The CDU is a ï¿½socialï¿½ party - it touts fairness at work, caring for the needy and admonishes naked greed in the name of traditional Christian and German values. In fact, it was the SPD-Green government under chancellor Gerhard Schrï¿½der (1998-2005), which first ï¿½brokeï¿½ the social democratic contract of 1949 by introducing a systematic attack on the German working class, in a package of neoliberal policies known as Agenda 2010.
Angela Merkel has succeeded to some degree in presenting herself as the caring Mutti of all Germans. There is very little Maggie Thatcher about her - that role is played by Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the FDP. The FDP is the only openly pro-market party in Germany. The main plank of its election programme was the call for a cut in taxes (which only benefit the middle class and the rich, rather than the millions of unemployed and working poor). In other words, they want the state to have even less money available to deal with the effects of the crisis.
They will also clash with Merkel over regulations to the banking system. The CDU wants them; the FDP does not. The FDP wants to abolish the minimum wage that exists in a few German industries - the CDU does not. Just after the election, Merkel even had to come out publicly and ï¿½assure the German peopleï¿½ that she will not allow other parts of the FDP programme to become government policy: privatisation of the health system, the abolition of the right of employees in small companies to have union representation and a relaxation of legal protection against unfair dismissal.
SPD: Saved by humiliation
Of course, this was a deeply humiliating result for SPD. In government since 1998, the SPD has steadily moved to the right. For the first time since 1949, the big German unions refused to call on the working class to vote for the party of Bebel and Liebknecht. Almost a million SPD voters have switched to Die Linke (and over 1.6 million former SPD voters chose not to go to the polls at all this year).2
However, this is the best thing that could have happened to the SPD (apart from winning a majority, which was never on the cards). Had it done slightly better, the CDU might have turned to it for another ï¿½grand coalitionï¿½ - which might well have finished off the SPD. But in opposition it has an actual chance to recover. The SPD is clearly not just a ï¿½pro-capitalist partyï¿½, as, for example, the Socialist Partyï¿½s German section, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), claims. Just like the Labour Party in Britain, it is a bourgeois workersï¿½ party with two poles that has clearly been dominated by the right over recent years.
However, the pull to the left has increased and will now speed up dramatically with the move into opposition. It might have been economically naive and nothing but a PR exercise, but Steinmeierï¿½s call for ï¿½full employmentï¿½ speaks volumes.3 The Berlin SPD has just published an open letter in which its members demand the ï¿½abolition of the reforms introduced by Agenda 2010ï¿½ and a replacement of the national leadership, which is ï¿½too closely linked to Schrï¿½derï¿½.4 Andrea Nahles, a prominent member of the SPD left, is now likely to become the new general secretary.
This pull to the left has undoubtedly also been sparked by the success of Die Linke. While some in the SPD just want to move to the left to stop Die Linke from nicking its ï¿½natural votesï¿½, others have a more long-term strategy. For example, Olaf Scholz (secretary of employment in the grand coalition) demands a ï¿½rapprochementï¿½ between the parties. We are likely to see a dramatic increase in ï¿½red-redï¿½ cooperation and coalitions at a local and regional level.
So far, the SPD and Die Linke have only governed together in the east German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and, notoriously, in Berlin. But with the move into opposition, the SPD will work hard towards a majority in the second chamber, the Bundesrat. This is made up according to the strength of the parties in regional governments. At the moment, the CDU and FDP have a slight majority. But this could change quickly, as a number of regional elections have failed to produce a clear majority and coalition negotiations are still ongoing. The SPD will try to avoid regional coalitions that give more votes to the CDU nationally. Instead, the pressure is now on to form more regional governments with Die Linke.
Many in Die Linke are already looking forward to the next national elections, the Bundestagswahl of 2013. Steinmeier has refused to rule out a future red-red national coalition (which, realistically, would also have to include the Greens). Not only because this might be the only way the SPD can get back into government. But also because such a rapprochement would trigger the demise of Die Linke. The SPD hopes that it can now start to win back all those who have turned their backs on the Social Democrats over the last 11 years in power. Even if the SPD moves slightly to the left, that will increase the pressure on Die Linke to split.
Die Linke: good and bad
The result for Die Linke is fantastic - no doubt about it. More than five million people in Germany voted for a party that describes itself as ï¿½leftï¿½ (and sometimes even ï¿½socialistï¿½). Since 1949 there had never previously been a two-figure return at a national election for a party left of the SPD (25% of all unemployed people voted Die Linke - more than for any other party). Die Linke now has 76 members of parliament who can use their positions to oppose the neoliberal attacks and job losses, and fight for the introduction of a national minimum wage and the immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.
The election saw Die Linke become the biggest party in most states in the former East Germany. In most eastern regions, Die Linke is a real Volkspartei. In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, 32.2% of the electorate voted for it. However, across Bavaria, it only managed to pick up 6.5% of the vote. 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 of the ï¿½official communistsï¿½ 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 and its predecessors had struggled for years to get 5% of the vote. But now Die Linke has comfortably cleared the 5% hurdle everywhere. In three of the 11 west German federal states, it even exceeded 10%. So the gap between east and west has got smaller, although it is still there.
And another interesting statistic: When asked as to describe their reasons for voting Die Linke, 39% said ï¿½out of convictionï¿½, but 60% cited ï¿½disappointmentï¿½ with the other parties.5 Die Linke should really take this to heart. Its current trajectory will undoubtedly lead to a lot of ï¿½disappointmentï¿½ amongst its electorate. The leadership is very keen to follow the SPD into red-red coalitions locally, regionally and also nationally.
Although, according to its carefully arrived at official position, Die Linke would have refused to take part in a national government if results had favoured the SPD last Sunday, party leader Oskar Lafontaine sounded like he was more than ready to backtrack. Just after the results came in he said: ï¿½It is a paradox that in the current situation, where a strong state becomes more important and where more regulations are needed, that those two parties have got a majority which stand against those political necessities. The current crisis would have demanded a government coalition that could have redefined the role of the state and its regulatory functions. It is regrettable that it has not come to this.ï¿½6
Gregor Gysi, joint parliamentary leader of Die Linke, said that ï¿½there is a re-social-democratisation of the SPD going on because of us. But we will also change, because now, with a bigger share of the vote, we have a bigger responsibility. The SPD has to make a big step in our direction and we have to make a small step towards them.ï¿½ Asked by journalists, he would not divulge which ï¿½small stepï¿½ Die Linke would be prepared to take.7
Of course, it has already taken many, many steps on its way to ï¿½electabilityï¿½ (on its way to the right, in other words). In the Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern government coalitions Die Linke has been responsible for draconian cuts and closures. How could it be any different? As a minority in a bourgeois government, Die Linke is forced to manage capitalism, which especially in this period means cuts, cuts and cuts again.
It would be much better served to concentrate on becoming the main opposition party - especially now that the SPD will fight for the same role. But a majority on the partyï¿½s leadership yearns for office. However, around 40% of the national executive are critical of the majority line to one degree or another. They are opposed by the very strong Realo wing, which is mainly based in the east of Germany.
The Die Linke body politic is currently being held together by a very thin skin. Is it fighting for socialism? If so, what is socialism? Was East Germany a socialist country? These are only some of questions that have been bubbling away for many years. In fact, the party currently has no programme. The big programmatic fight that was suspended for the elections is set to resume.
German SWP section
One (formally) revolutionary organisation that is not involved in this fight is the Socialist Workers Partyï¿½s German section, Linksruck, which was formally dissolved in 2005. Its 200 or so members are currently grouped around the magazine Marx 21. This comes out about five times a year and so is always on the ball and up to the minute. As we go to press, four days after the elections, its website still does not mention the results - or the fact that two ex-Linksruck members now sit in the national parliament.
In fact, you can find more about it in Socialist Worker. The current issue carries a brief report on the elections and an interview with ï¿½Stefan Bornost, editor of German magazine Marx 21ï¿½ (no mention of the link with the SWP):
ï¿½Party leader Oskar Lafontaine says the key tasks ahead include joining governments in order to block federal legislation, winning future elections and taking to the streets to protest against cuts. However, joining governing coalitions at a time of budget cuts would almost certainly mean implementing policies that hit the partyï¿½s working class supporters, says Stefan. ï¿½You cannot say that a vote for Die Linke is one that will defend public services, while at the same time making cuts,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½But the pressure to take office is great. The revulsion with the CDU is such that the vast majority of Die Linkeï¿½s voters say they want our party in government.ï¿½ï¿½8
Officially, the comrades argue against government participation. But not particularly emphatically. In fact, comrade Stefanï¿½s comments sound almost like an excuse to join a future government - and an excuse for Marx 21 not to protest too loudly.
The comrades are playing a very dodgy role. More than a dozen of them have paid employment within Die Linke - most working for MPs or as members of local, regional and now national parliaments themselves. They have been acting as outriders for the leadership, particularly Oskar Lafontaine, and have consistently argued that Die Linke should not be a socialist organisation. And now they are reaping their ï¿½rewardsï¿½.
But the price to pay for such unprincipled politics can be very high indeed.