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GERMANY
Behind the deal to form a new government
A "grand coalition" that stands for cuts

By Jeff Bale | October 14, 2005 | Page 4

AFTER WEEKS of frenzied speculation following the inconclusive results of the September election, Germany's two biggest parties struck a deal to form a new government together.

Angela Merkel, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will become Germany's new chancellor. Her party will govern in a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats (SPD)--but without outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the leader of the current government, who won't participate with the SPD in sharing power and offices with the CDU.

The SPD and CDU each won about 35 percent of the vote, leaving neither with a clear majority in the country's parliament, even with the support of previous coalition partners--for the CDU, the Free Democrats, which won 11 percent of the vote; and for the SPD, the Greens, whose result fell to just over 8 percent.

This uncertainly produced all kinds of far-fetched schemes to create a new government. The guessing game was finally resolved with the announcement of the "grand coalition."

This consummates something that has existed for some time. Both parties openly embrace--to somewhat varying degrees--German corporations' demand to dismantle the welfare state, create a "flexible" labor market and reduce the costs of doing business in the country.

In all the speculation, the real story of the elections was overshadowed--that the vote was a victory for the German radical left beyond the SPD and a sound defeat for the neoliberal policies embraced by the other parties.

The newly formed Left Party won just under 9 percent of the total in its first election. This means they got 4.1 million votes--and with that, 54 seats in the new government.

The Left Party's success--and the failure of the two major parties to come anywhere close to a majority--underscores the extent to which Germans have rejected Schröder's "Agenda 2010" of cuts in social programs and attacks on workplace rights and working-class living standards.

The only reason that the SPD wasn't trounced--as was widely predicted during the summer--was that the CDU promised worse austerity, and Schröder's government shifted hard to the left during the campaign. In other words, the SPD campaigned against its own record of cutbacks for workers and tax breaks for corporations and the rich.

Some progressives had actually welcomed a grand coalition as a lesser evil to the CDU blocking with other conservative parties--on the grounds that at least the SPD would have influence in the new government.

But under the arrangement finally worked out between the CDU and SPD, the SPD will keep control of the ministries of finance, labor and foreign affairs. So while Merkel will surely sharpen the axe, the SPD is still in charge of the very parts of the government that implemented Schröder's agenda of social spending cuts in the first place.

The political merging of Germany's two dominant parties has opened up a huge vacuum on the left, which the Left Party has only just begun to fill.

Where the Left Party goes from here, though, is difficult to say. So far, it has rightly been pressuring the SPD. It promised to vote for a minority government led by the SPD and the Greens--if the SPD agreed to stick to promises made during the campaign to roll back cuts in social spending and get German troops out of Afghanistan.

The maneuvering in parliament still leaves the critical question of what the Left Party is to become in the future. The party itself was formed only recently out of a partnership forged between the Electoral Alternative for Social Justice (WASG in German) and the successor party to the East German Communist Party, the PDS.

The PDS has little to do with its East German predecessor, but its leaders have joined local and state governments in eastern Germany--and played a part in imposing critical cuts in social services, especially in Berlin. This has cost the PDS not only respect, but many members as well.

The WASG, on the other hand, is composed largely of former members of the SPD who opposed the right-wing shift led by Schröder. Because of the extremely tight relationship between the SPD and the German union movement, this means that founding members of WASG are either in the trade union movement themselves or closely tied to it. Additionally, the WASG is attracting some former major players of the SPD--and is sending them to Berlin as part of its parliamentary delegation.

This means that the dominant feel in the party is a nostalgia for the "golden days," when the SPD really stood for workers' rights.

However misplaced that nostalgia might be, the reality is that the WASG became a prominent political force in spite of its leaders' connections to the SPD--and because of the role it played over the last 18 months in organizing a massive protest movement against the SPD's Agenda 2010.

The future of the Left Party lies in expanding this movement. Left Party leaders can accomplish much in terms of politicking, with their newly won 54 seats in parliament. But those representatives will have sharper teeth if they are backed up by thousands of unionists, immigrant activists, students, women, lesbians and gays and other ordinary Germans organizing in the streets and workplaces to push back the CDU-SPD agenda. Activists in the party have called for a strategy conference on November 19-20, where precisely the question of what's next for the Left Party will be addressed.

One thing is certain: the huge showing for the Left Party in the election has shifted the political mood of the country to the left. Now it's time to turn that mood into action.

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