German voters rattle Merkel

May 22, 2012

Folko Mueller analyzes the impact of a defeat for the Christian Democratic Union in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populated state.

GERMAN CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel's ruling conservative party was hammered May 13 in elections in a key German state, a sign that voters are increasingly unhappy with Merkel's pro-business austerity policies.

These elections for state government in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) were deemed highly significant in all of Germany, since NRW is considered a bellwether state for general elections, expected to be held in September 2013.

But while Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) suffered its worst defeat in any state since the 1950s, the anti-austerity Left Party lost ground, too, losing its representation in the state's parliament.

Indeed, the elections had a dual character. On the one hand, it was a landslide loss for the CDU and its candidate for NRW's minister-president, Norbert Röttgen, who was also federal minister for the environment in Merkel's cabinet at the time. It was Röttgen who declared the elections a referendum on Merkel's austerity policies, known in Germany as the fiscal pact.

Norbert Röttgen on the campaign trail
Norbert Röttgen on the campaign trail (Tim Reckmann)

On May 13, voters clearly rejected these policies, handing Röttgen and the Christian Democrats the worst result in state elections in 60 years and the worst ever in NRW, with 26.3 percent of the vote. As a result of this poor performance, Röttgen has been forced to resign as from his chairmanship of the CDU in North-Rhine Westphalia and his post as a federal minister.

Germany's other big party, the Social Democrats (SPD, according to its initials in German) got the most votes, with a total of 39.1 percent, up 4.7 percentage points over the last election. The biggest winner of the day was the Pirate Party, primarily a single-issue party formed in 2006 that is concerned with Internet privacy and intellectual property rights. At 7.8 percent, the Pirates clearly managed to capture a good amount of protest votes.

SUPPORTERS OF the Left Party--formed in 2007 with the merger of the former ruling communist party of ex-East Germany with a formation of unionists and disaffected SPD members from western Germany--were deeply disappointed by the results.

The party was unable to recreate its success from 2010, failing to clear the 5 percent threshold needed to win representation in the NRW parliament. Just a week earlier, the Left Party likewise lost parliamentary representation in another German state election in Schleswig-Holstein.

The Left Party's poor showing is somewhat surprising, given Röttgen's effort to make austerity the center of the election. Neither the Green Party, whose share of votes was virtually unchanged from 2010, nor the SPD are against the fiscal pact on principle--in fact, they are willing to carry it out its austerity measures in exchange for small concessions. The Pirate Party isn't clear has no official position.

Thus, the Left Party was, in theory, the only viable choice in terms of an anti-austerity vote. So why didn't it play out that way?

The mainstream media seems to be pointing to an internal struggle between different factions within the Left Party. The current party leadership is widely considered to be weak. Yet as the German socialist website Marx21 rightly points out, those same internal factions and struggles existed three years ago when the party was faring far better.

Some activists believe that a return of the previous party co-chair Oskar Lafontaine to the national leadership would most likely result in more votes, particularly in western Germany. But even that wouldn't necessarily leave behind structures to build on for the future.

The chief problem is that the Left Party has failed to mobilize voters and motivate its own members. With the Greens and Social Democrats playing the role of opposition, there was little room for the Left Party to stand apart in the parliamentary struggle. At the same time, the Left Party has neglected the extra-parliamentary struggle due to a fixation on elections and campaigns.

Not all is lost for the Left Party, of course.

First, political parties go through cycles. Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left, known as SYRIZA, is an example. It scored a fantastic second-place finish in national elections at the beginning of May. But in 2009, already a time of general strikes and heightened class struggle, SYRIZA's result in national elections dropped to 4.6 percent. Continuing resistance to austerity and SYRIZA's more organic connection with the extra-parliamentary struggle turned things around.

In Germany, the SPD has moved significantly to the right since the days when Gerhard Schröder was chancellor between 1998 and 2005. This has created a large political void to the left of the party. The Pirate Party is both unable and unwilling to fill that void, so the need for a Left Party hasn't diminished. However, in order to successfully fill that void, the Left Party needs a thorough discussion of the current crisis and a general revamping of the party.

A group of socialists in the Left Party, organized as Marx21, recently put forward a discussion paper that attempts to both explain the current crisis of the Left Party and how to remedy it. The Left Party needs a profile that is radically different from the established parties. That means a move away from elections as a primary vehicle for social change and a turn toward other groups engaged in extra-parliamentary struggles.

While the intensity of the class struggle in Germany is clearly not as high as Greece or Spain, there's still plenty of action to get involved in. The Occupy movement created an anti-capitalist milieu in Germany as well, and the European "days of action" in May produced a significant mobilization, including a huge demonstration in Frankfurt for a meeting of the European Central Bank.

While individual Left Party members are participating in these protests, the party as a whole should be more engaged. Similarly, attacks on unions are becoming more intense and frequent in this era of austerity--such as the one happening right now at Opel, General Motors' German subsidiary. Unskilled, nonunion labor is getting hit hard as well, mainly by the steep increase in temporary and contract work.

Furthermore, Germany is also dealing with issues of gentrification and a rising rents in urban areas. And as the recent elections in Spain and France demonstrated, fascism tends to rear its ugly head when mainstream parties fail to address burning social and economic issues. This holds true for Germany as well.

In short, there are plenty of struggles to get involved in for a party that wants to be a true left-wing alternative. The propositions put forward by Marx21 should be discussed as widely as possible, both within the Left Party as well as with sympathizers.

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