The 13 March elections in three German federal states saw a polarisation, with massive gains for the right-wing, nationalist, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and a certain rallying around the parties that seemed best positioned electorally to prevent the AfD becoming part of the government. Thus the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens each had one good or reasonable result and two poor or bad results.
These elections pose sharply the limits of the moralistic “refugees are welcome” approach in combating the far right’s exploitation of fears, prejudices and growing alienation from what is seen as the establishment.
State elections have rarely caused so much confusion as those in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt on 13 March. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) polled even stronger than generally expected. At least in the two western states, it was the SPD and the Greens who benefitted most from the existing opposition to the AfD and right-wing populism amongst large sections of the population. Merkel’s position within the CDU (Christian Democratic Union )/ CSU (Christian Social Union) was strengthened by the fact that CDU candidates critical of her line were defeated. The CDU lost votes and yet will probably be in government in more states than before. The liberal FDP is back. And DIE LINKE (Left Party) is left sitting on the fence due to the course of its leadership.
Many commentators say that the refugee issue was central to these election campaigns. This claim is particularly popular with state politicians, who like to claim that their great work at state level was overshadowed by national events. Without doubt, the federal government’s policy towards refugees and the open disagreement within the ruling coalition was a decisive factor for many voters, not just for AfD voters. But it would be insufficient to explain the breakthrough of the right wing nationalists solely with this one issue. Additionally, this is also the reason why we unfortunately must expect that the successes of the AfD will not be as short-lived as those of other far-right parties in the past, such as the Republikaner, DVU, NPD and Schill-Partei.
However, the AfD is not merely an expression of racist moods amongst a section of the population and not every AfD voter is a racist. The AfD has succeeded in capitalising on fears in connection with immigration and refugees which have been stoked up by a variety of forces. But it is also an expression of the widespread disaffection with established parties and the institutions of society.
Opinion polls show that most of those who voted for the AfD did not do so because of its political programme, but rather in order to punish the establishment parties. The refugee issue was the most important one for most AfD voters, but it was followed by the issue of ‘social justice’. On the one hand, this is absurd, because the AfD is a neo-liberal business-oriented party with a programme for social injustice, but, on the other hand, it shows that many working people have not perceived this and are just grasping the opportunity to send a signal of dissatisfaction and protest. This is also borne out by the rise in the voter turnout and the fact that the AfD managed to mobilise a high proportion of former non-voters.
Despite the fact that the AfD has profited from a specific set of circumstances– an open row in the coalition, hysteria around the refugee issue, a low level of class struggles and other social conflicts – its success is only possible due to the existence of a dangerous racist and nationalist residue in society. Its existence is also not least the responsibility of the parties and institutions of the state which have for decades propagated the notion of unequal treatment of immigrants (racism) and the notion of a “we-group” of Germans (nationalism).
The task now is to fight against this, while, at the same time, offering those AfD voters – outside of its hard racist core - genuine alternatives to the capitalist establishment. At the same time, this kind of alternative can also mobilise non-voters who reject what the AfD offers, while not feeling represented by any other party either, including DIE LINKE. Studies have shown that the proportion of people who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum is particularly high amongst non-voters. DIE LINKE should be concerned about its inability to mobilise these people. These elections have also shown how the struggle against the right must be carried out. Evidently, the moralising stigmatisation of the AfD by a front, ranging from CDU/CSU to DIE LINKE, could not prevent the breakthrough for a party that wants to shoot people at the borders. Stopping the AfD is not sufficient motivation for people who are fed up with the course of politics , so far, to turn out on election day in order to vote for those very same parties who they blame for the state of affairs they are dissatisfied with.
For DIE LINKE, the election result is a disaster. It should lead to a broad debate on its policies, strategies, priorities and behaviour and lead to a change of course. In Saxony-Anhalt, the party lost 7.4 percentage points (52,000 voters). They could not mobilise non-voters, although the turnout was up. Instead, DIE LINKE lost 28,000 voters to the AfD. The dream of the party’s right wing of leading a state government for the second time, after Bodo Ramelow’s example in Thüringen, is in tatters. Wulf Gallert’s ‘statesmanlike’ and conformist election campaign ended in defeat. According to an opinion poll, 47% of those asked agreed with the statement that DIE LINKE does not stand for a different kind of politics than the other parties when in government. So why vote DIE LINKE?
In Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Pfalz more leftist and oppositional DIE LINKE election campaigns did not lead to better results either. But direct comparisons cannot be made. Of course, it is more difficult to have electoral success when a party has a weaker starting position; not having representatives in parliament, few members and limited organisational and financial resources. However, despite this being true, it would be wrong to attribute the failure to enter parliament in these states solely to these reasons. DIE LINKE neither managed to give expression to the mood against the AfD and against racism – a mood which undoubtedly exists – and transform it into votes, nor did they manage to make use of the disaffection with the establishment which exists in western Germany too.
While DIE LINKE has taken different positions on refugee policy compared to the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens (and, of course, the AfD) and voted against more restrictive asylum laws, simultaneously the party leaders have created the impression that they do not really find Merkel’s position on the refugee issue that bad. At the same time, DIE LINKE’s leading representatives send out contradictory signals; Ramelow carrying out deportations from Thüringen, former leader, Lafontaine, talking about “upper limits”, the ‘left’ co-chair of DIE LINKE’s Bundestag group, Wagenknecht, speaking about refugees “abusing our hospitality”.
Most importantly, DIE LINKE is not managing to connect the issues of refugees and racism with the social questions in a convincing manner. It fails to emphasise that racism only serves the interests of the powerful because it divides people, and does not advocate in a convincing manner a united struggle for social improvements for everyone. In addition, DIE LINKE’s behaviour creates the impression that the party craves nothing more than to finally be ‘accepted’ by the other parties and be regarded as possible coalition partners by the SPD and Greens (and, in the opinion of Wulf Gallert, also by the CDU). DIE LINKE fails to make it unmistakeably clear it will not enter a coalition with austerity parties and will instead fight them in an uncompromising manner. Now that the AfD has broken through as the self-proclaimed “only opposition force”, anyone claiming that a clear rejection of ‘coalitionism’ with pro-capitalist parties would cost DIE LINKE votes is either living in a fantasy world or is simply refusing to let anything get in the way of a desire to enter government.
The fact that a different approach is possible was demonstrated a week earlier by the results of DIE LINKE in the local elections in many cities, such as Hesse, Kassel, Marburg and Giessen. Here, the party increased its vote significantly. The basis for this was a movement-orientated organisation at state level, which sees itself not as a party waiting to serve in governments running capitalism, but as a left opposition. This includes local branches that led campaigns against the privatisation of hospitals and increased fares for public transport, showing the ability to build alliances with other left forces and social movements.
Commenting on the state election results, DIE LINKE’s national co-chair, Katja Kipping, said: “We were aware that a clear position in favour of openness and solidarity would cost us votes.” Conversely, this would mean that 97% of the voters in Rhineland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg do not want to take in refugees and that everyone who did not vote for DIE LINKE is against “openness and solidarity”. Of course, this is not the case. The problem is that not many believe that a vote for DIE LINKE makes any difference.
Because DIE LINKE failed to convince as a genuine left alternative, the polarisation on the refugee issue primarily benefitted those forces which assumed that one had to support Merkel in the conflict between her, on the one hand, and Bavarian state premier Seehofer and the AfD, on the other hand. Paradoxically, in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, this did not win votes for the CDU but rather for Malu Dreyer (SPD) and Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) respectively, and DIE LINKE was left sitting on the fence,
Sahra Wagenknecht posed some correct questions in her reaction to the election results: “But would it not have been important to distance ourselves more from the socially irresponsible organisation of the refugee policy pursued by the grand coalition, instead of allowing the media to portray us as apparent supporters of Merkel’s refugee policy? Where did we lose contact with the social interests of our own voters? Why have we, in the eyes of so many become a part of the cartel of establishment parties and are no longer perceived as a counter-force with a clear profile? Did we perhaps not put the social question to the fore as much as we should have?”
This hardly fits well with her interview in the Berliner Kurier on the day before the elections, in which she herself created the impression of being not so far away from the positions of the establishment parties on the refugee issue. Wagenknecht’s statements, like “not all refugees can come here” and warning of “parallel worlds” through failed integration policy, sounded like concessions to the far right because no socialist solutions to the challenges posed by the rapid arrival of refuges was proposed.
Shift to the right?
The election results represent a significant shift to the right at a parliamentary level. But it would be wrong to equate this with a general shift to the right in society. The most recent polls show that the most widespread concern in society is the strengthening of far-right forces and that there is no generalised mood against refugees. The right has become louder, more self-confident and more dangerous. But the potential for a movement to oppose them is there, even if the election result does not show this.
What consequences will the AfD’s success have for further political developments? All three state governments were voted out, even if the SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate and the Greens in Baden-Württemberg made gains. In the final analysis, this strengthens the position of the CDU, which could possibly return to government in both of these states. Certainly, new coalition setups will have to be tested. In Saxony-Anhalt, the only conceivable government with a majority would be CDU, SPD and Greens. If this coalition cannot be formed, fresh elections seem inevitable. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens and SPD will either have to bring the FDP on board or else there will be a CDU / Green coalition at state level for the second time after Hesse but this time with the Greens as the senior coalition partner. Whether this will actually happen is not certain. The option of a first ever “Germany Coalition” between CDU, SPD and FDP seems to have been ruled out by the SPD. And in Rhineland-Palatinate, only a coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP could prevent the CDU from entering government. These difficulties in coalition building may pose a direct problem for the ruling class and make the political situation more unstable. At the same time it is a necessary test for new coalition options between the established pro-capitalist parties in advance of the 2017 general election.
The SPD is making much of its success in Rhineland-Palatinate in order to distract from the overall trend. In Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt they were reduced to the status of fourth largest party. In opinion polls at national level, they have slumped to somewhere between 22% and 25%, which is even lower than their poor result in the 2013 general election. The “strongest of parties” has become nothing more than a junior partner of the CDU and increasing sections of the working population are turning their backs on them. SPD leader Gabriel’s suggestion of a “social programme” was nationalistically motivated and was blatant electioneering. There is no visible left wing of the party and no reason to believe that this trend will be reversed in the foreseeable future.
Merkel will not fall as a result of these state elections. Whether she is strengthened or weakened over the next few months depends chiefly on the results of the upcoming EU summit and the question of whether or not the EU succeeds in closing its external borders and sending the refugees to Turkey. If the number of refugees arriving in Germany goes down, she will be able to sell this as a success of her policy, at the expense of the men, women and children who will be trapped in Turkish refugee camps and denied any chance of a better future
Merkel is still benefitting from an economic situation but which could rapidly deteriorate, given the crisis of the world economy. If this happens, social conflicts and class struggles will gain greater weight in society.
For the left, it is imperative to continue the struggle against racism and nationalism with maximum determination. But this cannot be done by blurring the distinction with Merkel’s refugee policy and the positions of the SPD and the Greens. A successful campaign needs to be against the right, exposing the social content of the AfD’s policies, and combining the fight against racism with the fight for social progress. An example of how this can be done is the alliance ‘Social Berlin against Racism” that strives to link the struggle against racism with the struggle for affordable accommodation, public investment and a redistribution of wealth, from top to bottom