A shift to the left?

Last Sunday saw elections in three German federal states – the Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia – and local elections in the country’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. One month before the general elections, these ballots were widely seen as an important test.

The world economic crisis has hit Germany but the interventions of the conservative and social-democratic Grand Coalition government cushioned the effects of the crisis and postponed the dramatic increase in unemployment which will undoubtedly come. Just last week, a top manager confessed that there is a pact between the government and the big companies to postpone redundancies until after the 27 September general elections. The second quarter of the year saw small economic growth in comparison to the first quarter and the level of class struggle is also relatively low, with the big strikes of child care and other social workers in the summer ending in a compromise aimed at avoiding a class movement during the general election campaign.

Angela Merkel - fearing damage by neo-liberal image

This means the country is in a somewhat strange situation with everybody talking about the crisis but many not feeling the crisis’ material effects – yet!

The elections saw big losses for the two main parties – social-democratic SPD and conservative CDU. The CDU losses show the potential fragility of its support, even though it currently seems to be on course for victory in the general election. Merkel, having nearly lost the 2005 election because of appearing neo-liberal, has now adopted a low key approach of uttering generalities and avoiding hard questions. However the SPD, given its basically neo-liberal record for much of the time it has been in national government since 1998, cannot gain from this. The SPD is now in a deep historic crisis standing at around 22% in opinion polls for the general elections, four years ago they won 34.2%.

In last weekend’s elections the smaller opposition parties – liberal FDP, the Greens and the Left Party – generally increased their share of the vote. The CDU and FDP had hoped for so-called ‘black-yellow’ coalitions in the federal states in order to prepare the way for such a right-wing capitalist government on a national level. But they did not succeed. Only in Saxony there is the possibility for such a coalition – after the loss of the absolute majority for the CDU. In Thuringia and the Saarland the conservative prime ministers lost their majorities and it is likely that we will see coalitions of the SPD with the Left Party and, in the Saarland, also with the Greens.

This is extremely significant. The Saarland would be the first West German federal state with a government participation of the Left Party. In Thuringia, the Left Party is stronger than the SPD and demands the position of prime minister for the first time in an East German state – something which the SPD is rejecting.

‘Red-red’ coalitions?

The results in the Saarland and Thuringia are interesting from many aspects. Here a change of government with a strong Left Party was an obvious possibility. This has mobilised voters. The turnout in the Saarland went significantly up. One factor in this also has been that the Left Party’s candidate and national co-chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, was the prime minister of the Saarland for the SPD in the 1980s and 1990s and still is very popular in this state.

But the orientation towards government coalitions means a shift to the right in the Left Party. In both states the Left Party does not put forward clear conditions on an alliance with the SPD and the Greens. In Thuringia they will probably be prepared to abandon the position of prime minister in order to get the coalition going.

For Marxists, it is a principled position to be opposed to the entry of a workers’ or left-wing party into a pro-capitalist coalition government. Such a policy can only undermine the building of a strong socialist movement and of resistance against job losses, social cuts and privatisations. Especially in times of capitalist crisis, any government will only have one choice: to use the government to fight against big business or to give in to the demands of big business. With the German economy expected to contract by around 6% this year, the capitalists will be demanding serious “sacrifices” from both the working and middle classes. An anti-capitalist policy is impossible with the SPD and the Greens which are fully bourgeois parties without any significant elements of a workers’ base in their active membership.

The possibility of so called ‘red-red’ coalitions might find the support of advanced workers at the moment, but it is clear that this support will rapidly fall after a period of experiences with the policies that can be expected from such governments. This was the case with the ‘red-red’ coalitions in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the past. The Left Party should not have campaigned for a coalition with the SPD in the Saarland and Thuringia but should have campaigned for the elections to be a ballot on the pro-capitalist government policy of both CDU and SPD and as a starting point to organise mass resistance to the coming onslaught on living standards. Such an approach could also have appealed to those who still look to the SPD, or even the Greens, as “lesser evils” and help to build a mass left-wing workers’ party which can bring about the perspective of a left-wing workers’ government standing for the democratic-socialist change of society.

The entry into the coalitions in the Saarland and Thuringia will most likely strengthen the right-wing in the Left Party and it will be necessary for anti-capitalist and socialist forces to organise in a better way and put forward an alternative socialist strategy to the present leadership.

Local election results for the Left Party

In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the local elections for the councils saw the Left Party receiving an average of 4.4%. This is up three percentage points from 2004. But then the PDS, only one of the one of the two parties which formed the Left Party, stood while in many cities local left-wing alliances also stood but those results were not counted in the PDS’s 2004 result. The Left Party’s result is a disappointment and worse than the Left Party received in the European elections earlier this year. It is also a warning that the party could fail in next year’s NRW federal state elections where a five-percent-barrier exists to enter parliament.

While the party in NRW is widely seen as the most left-wing structure on a federal state basis in many cities there were discussions and debates about the relation of the local Left Party to the SPD and Greens. In cities like Cologne and Aachen, the Left Party did not stand in the mayor’s election, something which clearly was seen as a support for the candidate of the SPD. Without a clear enough combative profile, the Left Party was unable to mobilise those voters who turned their back on all parties and stayed at home.

SAV member Klaus Ludwig - elected with highest Left vote ion Cologne

SAV member elected to Cologne city council

In Cologne, SAV member Claus Ludwig (see www.clausludwig.de ) was elected onto the council as a candidate for the Left Party. With 10.7%, he received the highest vote of any Left Party candidate. With a clear socialist and class struggle profile, he was able to show that a radical image does not lead to fewer votes, but can mobilise voters if this is combined with real work on the ground in support of workers and the unemployed. Interestingly, Claus’s constituency saw both an increased turnout and a drop in the vote for the far right “Pro Cologne” party which gained votes on a city-wide level and generally performed stronger than the Left Party.

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