The left in the German elections

Folko Mueller and Lee Sustar look at the dynamics of Germany's federal elections on September 27.

Supporters of the Left Party march in Berlin (Markus van Dahlen)Supporters of the Left Party march in Berlin (Markus van Dahlen)

A STRONG showing by the Left Party in Germany's regional elections last month has spiced up an otherwise dull national election contest between the country's two ruling parties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is favored to hang on to her post following September 27 federal elections. She is pitted against Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD, according to its initials in German), who serves as both Merkel's vice chancellor and foreign minister.

The two parties have ruled Germany's national government in a "grand coalition" since 2005, and have therefore tended to defend their government's record rather than challenge one another.

A televised debate September 13 found Merkel and Steinmeier agreeing more often that not. While Steinmeier hit harder at big business, Merkel didn't defend the free market like a member of the U.S. Republican Party would. Instead, she said that Germany's social-market economy should serve as an example for the rest of the world.

Dietmar Bartsch, the general secretary of the Left Party, dismissed the TV debate as "cuddly...It was a very boring affair. None of them were any good. It was exactly what we had expected."

Merkel's rhetoric is intended to soothe the fears of voters rattled by the plunge in Germany's economy as a result of the international crisis. On the campaign trail in the state of Bavaria, Merkel promised that the government would help people affected by the recession, contrasting Germany's social safety net with that of the U.S., where, she noted, nearly 50 million people lack health insurance.

Merkel has also used government policy to ease workers' pain ahead of the election. The government launched a $116 billion stimulus package, subsidized the wages of workers on short hours, boosted welfare payments, and instituted a popular cash-for-clunkers program to spur auto production and purchases. Employers privately admit to business publications that they've held off on mass layoffs prior to the elections.

And in recent weeks, Germany's economy has given Merkel a lift. Exports--which are central to Germany's economy--are rising rapidly, thanks in large part to the big Chinese stimulus program that has revived the market for German manufactured goods. The mass unemployment that many feared hasn't materialized.

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MERKEL'S MODERATE campaign has left Steinmeier and the SPD casting about for ways to present themselves as an alternative. But they are hard pressed to do so--not only because they are her junior partners, but because of their own anti-worker policies over the past decade.

As the leading party of government from 1998 to 2005 under Gerhard Schröder, the SPD pushed through a free-market neoliberal program known as Agenda 2010. At its core was the Hartz IV Commission employment "reform" package, named for the ex-Volkswagen executive who Schröder asked to lead the commission. The plan was aimed at cutting unemployment benefits and introducing "flexible" labor policies.

Schröder's and the SPD's turn to the right laid the basis for the emergence of the Left Party.

Oskar Lafontaine, a populist SPD leader and former finance minister in Schröder's government until he was forced out of office, left the SPD to form a left-wing breakaway group, the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG). In 2007, this group merged with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which was formed out of the remnants of the Stalinist ruling party in the former East Germany.

Since its formation, the Left Party, with an estimated 70,000 members, has made itself an important factor in German politics. It is a diverse organization: members include unionists from Western Germany, former functionaries of the East German state, young radicals, revolutionary socialists and career-minded reformists, such as those who run the city-state of Berlin, alongside Social Democrats.

Whatever its shortcomings, however, the emergence of the Left Party marks an important development in German and European politics, giving voice to those who are resisting the SPD's right turn.

The impact of the Left Party was undeniable in elections held August 30 in three of Germany's 16 states.

The success of the Left Party in the two eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, with 27.4 percent and 20.6 percent respectively, wasn't surprising. In fact, the result in Saxony was actually about three percentage points lower than what the Left Party scored five years before.

But the Left Party's big success in the Saarland was an entirely different story. It came out of nowhere (having failed to get into the regional parliament last time) to collect 21.3 percent of all votes. This result puts it only three percentage points behind the SPD.

In all three states, coalition talks are underway, since no party had an outright majority. The obvious partner for SPD in trying to end conservative rule should be the Left Party. In both Saarland and Thuringia, a broad left alliance (if the roughly 6 percent for the Green Party is included) has a majority of votes--a total of about 52 percent in each state. By comparison, the bourgeois parties have 43.7 percent and 38.8 percent in Saarland and Thuringia respectively.

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THE RESULTS clearly indicate that voters want a turn to the left. However, this outcome is not a given, given the SPD's reluctance to work with the Left Party across the country.

The relationship between the SPD and the Left Party is quite complicated, and is neither static nor uniform throughout the country.

On the one level, things are moving towards ending conservative rule and replacing it with a "red-red" coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party. This process started years ago--at first very tentatively, with collaboration on the municipal level in the former East Germany only. It culminated in a still-existing coalition government in the city-state of Berlin that began in 2001.

On another level, however, this is a very opportunistic relationship, especially for the SPD. There are quite a few Social Democrats who use pretty harsh rhetoric against the Left Party that really doesn't differ from the verbiage conservatives employ.

This mindset has in the past resulted in absolute debacles for the SPD. In regional elections in Hesse, for example, four right-wing SPD members publicly declared that they would vote against a red-green coalition in the Hessian parliament (only because it was dependent upon being "tolerated" by the Left Party). Not only did they thus undermine support for their own SPD candidate for local parliament, but they also caused a loss of face for the SPD as a whole before the electorate, which had given the party a mandate for change.

As a result of this rebellion by party right-wingers, the SPD's candidate governor of Hesse, Andrea Ypsilanti, was forced to break off coalition talks with the Green Party. The hung parliament was dissolved, and the following runoff election put conservative Roland Koch as head of the state of Hesse, since the SPD lost over 10 percentage points of the vote due to its mixed message and internal squabbling.

There is no coherent approach when it comes to forming coalitions--in particular, red-red ones--as far as the SPD is concerned. The chair of the SPD, Kurt Beck, declared that as far as state elections are concerned, forming coalitions is up to party officials at the state level.

With the general election already in mind, however, he also declared that there would be no red-red coalition at a federal level, since the differences between the Left Party and the SPD--in particular, when it comes to foreign policy--are large.

On the eve of the elections it seemed certain that the SPD would prefer to go into opposition than form a government with the Left Party's participation. This means the right and left wings of the Left Party, already at odds over the performance of the "red-red" coalition in Berlin, will be able to postpone the debate about whether to participate at the federal level.

Nevertheless, a strong showing for the Left Party would send an important message--that working people in Germany want to maintain social programs and are opposed to the pro-business policies of the grand coalition government.