Tens of thousands of Berliners voted against social and wage cuts in the September 17 election of the city’s parliament, the Abgeordnethaus.
The Berlin WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice) won over 52,000 constituency votes, 3.8% of the Berlin total, despite standing in only 80% of the constituencies, an extremely significant vote in its first ever election campaign. The highest WASG constituency vote was over 10%. In the voters’ second ballot for the regional party lists the WASG won over 40,000 votes, 2.9%, less than the 5% needed to be elected into the Abgeordnethaus. The WASG won 3.3% of second votes in the former east Berlin and 2.7% in west Berlin.
The size of this vote is also important because the national leadership of the WASG did not support its Berlin region. Instead the WASG national leaders backed the LeftParty.PDS (L.PDS) in this election, despite its participation in the last five years in a cut-making coalition with the SPD (Social Democrats).
It took a big struggle, in which members of Socialist Alternative (the CWI in Germany) played a prominent part, to even ensure that the Berlin WASG was able to stand at all in this election and a leader of the SAV, Lucy Redler, was number one on the WASG’s list of candidates (see earlier articles on www.socialistworld.net.) However, despite not being elected into the Abgeordnethaus, 14 WASG members, including 3 from the SAV, were elected into 7 of the city’s 12 district councils (BVV) where winning 3% of the vote was necessary.
These regional elections in Berlin, and also those in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, again illustrated the unpopularity of political parties that are seen to be involved in the offensive against living standards and social services that has accelerated in Germany over the past period. The results also showed both the possibilities open to a party clearly campaigning against the cuts and a warning of how the neo-fascists can exploit the absence of any left alternative.
In both states Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered their worst-ever results, a sign of the rapid fall in the popularly of the less than one year old Federal government. This is a big blow against the increasingly unpopular national grand coalition. Both the Christian and Social Democrats are glad that there is only one regional election due next year.
Both states saw drops of around 10 percentage points to give their lowest ever voter turnout. In Berlin the Greens and in Mecklenburg the "liberal", and "neoliberal", FDP increased their vote by 32,000 and in Berlin the Green vote rose by over 42,000, as both parties are not in government and not seen as being directly responsible for implementing local cuts, but there was no great enthusiasm for either party.
Up to these elections both Berlin and Mecklenburg have been ruled by a coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and L.PDS, the remnant of the former East German stalinist state party.
This website has already reported the extent of the social and wage cuts that have been implemented in Berlin. Similar policies have been followed in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, probably the poorest in Germany. It has lost over 10% of its population since re-unification and still today has 18.2% unemployment, the highest in Germany’s 16 regional states. But Berlin is the second highest with 17.4% unemployed.
In Mecklenburg, where the SPD-L.PDS coalition has governed since 1998, it was the SPD that suffered in this election, its vote dropping from 394,118 (40.6%) in 2002 to 247,291 (30.2%). The L.PDS saw a small increase in its percentage vote from 16.4% to 16.8%, but its real vote was down from 159,065 to 137,248. However the L.PDS’s big crash in votes look place between 1998 and 2002 as it slumped from 371,885 (34.4%) to 159,065. So in 8 years the L.PDS’s vote in Mecklenburg has fallen by nearly two-thirds.
In Berlin the SPD did not lose so much, partly because of the personal position of its slightly radical sounding local leader, Klaus Wowereit; currently seen as most probably the most popular SPD leader nationally. But the L.PDS suffered massively for its cuts policies. Its vote fell from 366,292, 22.6%, in 2001 to around 186,000, 13.4%. Its leaders knew their policies were not popular and had hoped to "only" drop to 17% but they fell far lower.
As the Berlin WASG had repeatedly warned the L.PDS’s policies alienated many working people. Kurt Beck, the SPD national leader, immediately claimed on election night that the nearly 20% percentage points fall in the L.PDS vote in the east of Berlin was "Lafontaine’s loss" and "penalty". This is complete rubbish. Lafontaine, the former SPD leader who is now leader of the WASG, was not responsible for the Berlin L.PDS’s policies.
But Lafontaine’s support for the Berlin L.PDS has made it more difficult to build a large anti-cuts alternative. Lafontaine and others in the WASG will still have to explain why they supported a L.PDS leadership that saw its vote in its east Berlin heartland slump from 297,251, 47.6%, in 2001 to just over 150,000, 28%, now. This massive defeat for the Berlin L.PDS and the Berlin WASG’s 40,000 votes should be the starting point for a real discussion on what is the future of the left in Germany, particularly next year’s proposed fusion between the L.PDS and WASG.
The potential for an anti-cuts movement was also seen in the over 30,000 jump in the Berlin vote for "Die Grauen" (Grey Panthers) a party representing pensioners, a section of the population who have been hit significantly by cuts.
This election took place against the background of falling popularity of the national grand coalition of the Christian and Social Democrats. The latest Deutschlandtrend opinion poll showed national support for the Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) at 34% and the SPD at 28%. Both are way below the votes they got in the September 2005 general election when they scored 40.8% and 38.4% respectively.
Now 70% of voters are "dissatisfied" with the Federal Government’s work. This unpopularity is mirrored amongst the government’s own voters. 51% of those who voted Christian democratic last year are disaffected with the government and 22% would not vote the say way again; amongst social democratic voters the figures rise to 67% and 33%.
The question is how can this dissatisfaction and anger express itself?
The trade union leaders have finally announced the details of the five regional protest demonstrations they are organising on October 21. This is a welcome step forward, but the DGB trade union federation has clearly stated that it is opposed to some government policies and is not against the government itself. Clearly they are not planning to lead a serious campaign. This puts more responsibility on activists and the left to build from below as was done for the 100,000 strong November 1 protest in 2003 that helped open the way for the WASG’s formation in 2004.
In 1998 in Mecklenburg and in 2001 in Berlin the L.PDS received record votes because it was seen to be the party most opposed to cuts in living standards. But in both states these high votes were immediately followed by the L.PDS joining cutting coalitions.
This was one of the reasons for the movement to form the WASG that started in 2004. In Berlin the WASG was able to offer a fighting alternative to many, but in Mecklenburg the WASG’s very small size has allowed the neo-fascist NPD to exploit the feeling of anger against the established parties. The massive jump in the NPD’s Mecklenburg vote from 7,718 (0.8%) in 2002 to 59,674 (7.3%) is a warning, particularly its success in winning 17% of the youth vote compared with the L.PDS’s 13%. Mecklenburg is now the third region with the far right in parliament, the NPD won 9.2% Sachsen in 2004 while also that year its ally, the DVU, was re-elected to Brandenburg’s state parliament with 6.1%.
This is why what happens next is so important. Despite the fact that the Berlin WASG was not able to get over the 5%, but the over 52,000 votes are a basis for future struggles against the German ruling class’s onslaught and for an alternative to the misery of capitalism.
Now the lessons of this election campaign, the step forward for the Berlin WASG and the utter failure of the Berlin L.PDS to get anywhere near its 17% target, need to be discussed as the WASG, along with the rest of the left, works out its programme and strategy. In this debate the SAV will explain the importance of combining a determined fight to defend and improve living standards with socialist policies that can provide a way out of the morass of capitalism.