Conservative victory, resurgence on the left

October 1, 2009

Jeff Bale and Folko Mueller assess the significance of the German elections and the growth of the Left Party.

THE CONSERVATIVES came out on top in Germany's national elections September 27, but there was nevertheless a strong showing for Die Linke (the Left Party) that will shake up German politics.

Much of the mainstream press, in Germany and especially in the United States, is characterizing the vote as a total victory for the right. However, the conservatives--the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, both referred to collectively as "the Union"--actually got their lowest result since 1949.

However, the pro-business liberals of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) scored their best showing since the founding of the former West Germany in 1949. This opens the door to a coalition government between the Union and the FDP. Re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Union has promised to finish coalition talks by November 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Based on FDP campaign slogans, the ongoing attack on the German social safety net is likely only to deepen. The FDP campaigned on cutting taxes by $50 billion--twice the amount the Union called for. Moreover, the FDP demanded sharp cuts in unemployment insurance, health care funding and other social services. And both parties strongly support the presence of German troops in Afghanistan.

Die Linke supporters participating in last summer's weeklong education strike
Die Linke supporters participating in last summer's weeklong education strike (Niklas Plessing)

In fact, so extreme are the FDP's policies against taxes and the social safety net that some Union politicians have expressed that the FDP will have to tone down their demands.

This may seem odd to those in the U.S. used to the Republican Party's brand of hard-line conservatism. Indeed, the Union and Merkel--like Helmut Kohl before her in the 1980s--have been politically unable to push through the sort of neoliberal, anti-working class agenda that has been the staple of U.S. politics for the last 30 years. Consequently, there are times when Merkel seems to be to the left of many Democrats in Washington.

THE SECOND major development out of the elections is the almost complete collapse of the Social Democratic Party (SPD, according to its initials in German). The SPD's result was so poor, in fact, that it prompted some political commentators to argue the party may have to stop claiming it's a "Volkspartei"--or the people's party.

The reason for its historically low tally can be found in the recent history of the party itself. The SPD has been ruling with the Union in a "grand coalition" since 2005, and had been in power exclusively for seven years before that. In power and in coalition, the SPD vigorously pursued a neoliberal program known as the Agenda 2010, which "reformed" unemployment insurance by making it harder to get, raised the age to qualify for pensions to 67, and changed labor laws in favor of employers.

As a result, the SPD initially saw a mass exodus of party members. Membership peaked under Willy Brandt's leadership in the 1970s, when it boasted over 1 million members, but the party was still able to recuperate after a period of decline, and had well over 900,000 members in the early 1990s.

Since then however, party membership has been going down, and was barely over half a million in 1998. The rightward turn finally caught up with the SPD at the voting booth as well. Last weekend's election gave it the weakest result in a general election since the Second World War--an 11.2 percent drop from the 2005 election, to just 23 percent of the vote overall.

Another factor in the result is the involvement of German troops in the war in Afghanistan.

Firstly, while politicians may label the German deployment to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission, it is a military conflict, which causes casualties. The current German body count from operations in Afghanistan is 32. This may seem small next to the casualties confronting the American public. However, the fact that Germans are dying abroad in operations the public deems highly questionable is a new phenomenon--and it's also highly disturbing to a nation with strong antiwar sentiment.

Secondly, the issue was exacerbated when the German Air Force bombed two tanker trucks that had previously been hijacked by Taliban forces in Kunduz on September 4. Despite the initial denial of civilian casualties from both German military and government officials, it has since been confirmed that at least 30 civilians--and maybe as many as 60--were killed in the air strike.

Only the Left Party has been consistently against the war on Afghanistan. The SPD was actually the party in power that first sent German troops to Afghanistan.

The SPD's role in reviving German militarism and its attacks on the working class opened the way for the Left Party. In a press conference held the day after the election, Gregor Gysi, a leader of the Left Party, said:

The SPD simply cannot remain the party that it currently is. The party was "un-social-democratized" by [former Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder. And the party still needs to confront the question: will it remain a second Union, or will it at least try to become a social-democratic party again, a "re-social-democratization." I think the latter is more likely, but we'll have to see.

In the fallout since the vote, the "social democratic wing" of the SPD has in fact called for current leaders to step down and has begun to push more strongly for a return to the SPD's political traditions. The most prominent voice calling for change is Berlin Mayor Klaus Woworeit. Importantly, however, he has so far only called for a "critical analysis" of Agenda 2010 policies, not their repeal.

THE FINAL and most promising trend coming out of the elections is the dramatic breakthrough of the Left Party in Germany. The Left Party not only got its highest result nationally (11.9 percent) since forming two years ago, but this marks the first time since 1949 that a political party to the left of the SPD took more than 10 percent of the vote.

Beyond the total, the breakdown of the vote for the Left Party shows important developments. Unsurprisingly, voters in the eastern part of Germany supported the Left Party more than in the west--this is where one of the two main groups, the remnants of the former ruling Stalinist party that ran East Germany, has its base. The Left Party was formed in a merger of the ex-communists with the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice, a group of dissident unionists and disaffected SPD members in the former West.

However, support for the Left Party was fairly equal across different age groups, with the highest proportion among 45- to 59-year-olds.

The Left Party has typically gotten most of its votes from the unemployed in Germany, but this election marked an important breakthrough among the employed. The Left Party took 18 percent of the employed blue-collar worker vote.

In addition to the national elections, two states--Schleswig-Holstein in the north and Brandenburg in the east--held votes. The Left Party took fewer votes in Schleswig-Holstein--only 6 percent of the total--but that was still more than the 5 percent minimum needed to send representatives to the state parliament. This means the Left Party is now represented in 12 of 16 state governments, with Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria still to go. In Brandenburg, the Left Party took over 27 percent of the vote, making it the second-strongest party in that state.

Gysi made clear the crucial meaning of the vote results at a press conference, explaining the Left Party's success not only in terms of its platform, but also because of the many thousands of party members who were active in the campaign.

Despite the breakthrough for the Left Party, there are many important political questions and struggles still ahead. The party campaigned on a six-point program:

-- A safety net for everyone
-- Put people's social interests and needs first
-- For a just and future-oriented society
-- Protect democracy and civil rights
-- Peace and social justice
-- Consistently social for democracy and peace

This program proved appealing to broad sections of the German working class. However, it represents a compromise between the left and right wings of the party. And Gysi himself remarked that the fraction of Left Party ministers in parliament reflects the political diversity inside the Left Party.

Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader in the SPD and now a central figure in the Left Party, has outlined a strategy that aims to bridge these divisions. He calls for a two-pronged approach of building state-level parliamentary coalitions against the right, while mobilizing the unions and street protests as well.

But the contradictions will remain--for example, the Left Party's collaboration with the SPD in running the city-state of Berlin remains controversial within the party.

For the Left Party to be effective as the opposition--and more importantly, for the party to be a leading force in social movements on the ground--these debates can no longer be put off. Activists inside the party will need to push hard so that working-class politics form the basis of resolving these questions.

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