Germany: No choice elections

On 22 September, the Social Democrats and Greens succeeded in defending their government position in the national elections but with a very small majority.

The recent German general elections saw the return of Schröder’s SPD/Green coalition government, in what was an amazing turn around in fortunes. Only weeks ago, Schröder was staring defeat in the face, as his government polled badly after years of neo-liberal policies.
Central to the success for Schröder was undoubtedly the support he won for his stance against a US led war on Iraq, albeit an opportunist stance.
Anti-war and anti-militarist sentiments are always strong in Germany, but, even so, for a ’foreign issue’ to play such a key role in an election outcome is rare in recent European history. It indicates the deep opposition to what many German workers and youth see as US war plans for securing vital oil supplies in the Middle East. Many people share this view across Europe.
Many anti-war demonstrations are planned in numerous European cities in the coming days and weeks ahead.
Sascha Stanicic, in Berlin, examines the outcome of the German elections, and puts the case to build a socialist alternative. CWI

No-choice elections

Second, party list, votes







































Overall the CDU/CSU won 38.5%, a rise of 3.3% points, to equal the SPD’s 38.5%.

The right-wing conservative candidate, Edmund Stoiber, was stopped at the polls. It is clear that many workers and youth decided to vote one more time for the SPD and the Greens, despite their anti-working class and neo-liberal policies, to stop what they saw as a shift to the right.

It is also true that the capitalists were promoting a change of government because they hoped Stoiber could step up the speed of attacks on workers’ living standards and rights.

Many workers and youth were relieved about Stoiber’s defeat but they will now find out that they will be the losers under a continuation of a "red-green" coalition, which will continue social cuts and privatisation.

Neck to neck race

It was a neck-to-neck-race on polling day until late in the night. Two months ago, opinion polls saw the conservative and liberal parties well in advance of the SPD/Green government parties. This was a reflection of four years of neo-liberal policies. The SPD and Greens created the possibility of a comeback for the hated party of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, after the CDU were thrown out of office in 1998, by an electorate determined to change the direction the country was heading. But under the SPD/Greens nothing fundamentally changed. The Schröder government continued where Kohl had left off and so the SPD were made to pay for this policy on election day. Compared with four years ago, the SPD lost 1,694,000 votes, mainly amongst industrial workers.

That they survived in power was mainly due to two events: the summer floods in eastern Germany and the US war plans against Iraq. The government reacted quickly after the floods and successfully presented itself as acting in the interest of the victims. This allowed Schröder to portray himself as doing something concrete to help the east, despite its record levels of unemployment and continuing high rates of depopulation.

On the question of an attack on Iraq, Schröder adopted an anti-war position and went into conflict with the Bush administration. This was not because of a principled anti-war position by the government. In the last four years it had decided to send German troops abroad seventeen times and participated in the attacks on Serbia and Afghanistan. Schröder’s anti-war rhetoric reflected the interests of the German ruling class who sees the incalculable consequences of an all out attack against Iraq. German bosses fear that a regime change in Iraq, after a US-led war, would lead to an Iraqi government obedient to the US alone, limiting the prospects for German companies to make profit out of the country.

They also want to counter the unilateralist approach of the US. During the election campaign, Schröder went as far as saying that his government would not support a war even if it were lead by the UN. This was a tactical manoeuvre to mobilise support for the elections. It caused a severe worsening of US-German relations. From the point of view of the German capitalist class, Schröder went too far. He will not be able to maintain that position if and when a war starts.

A new war in the Middle East and, or, the continuing social and economic crisis could trigger off a quick crisis of the new government, which most likely will be much more unstable than the last coalition.

Growing alienation

One important phenomenon was not reflected in the election results: the growing alienation of the masses from the established parties. The mass of workers and young people did not vote enthusiastically for any of the parties. The opinion polls over the last months showed continual swings in mood. A few weeks before the elections, forty percent of the electorate said they were undecided over which way to vote. The entire campaign was very ‘non-political’, concentrating around "personalities". On domestic issues, you had to search for the differences between the established parties with a magnifying glass.

Overall the election turnout fell from 82.3% to 79.1% with 1,320,000 fewer votes cast than in 1998. The vote for smaller parties and for the far right was lower this time (the far right parties went down from 4.4 percent to 1.8 percent) because a layer of the electorate wanted to prevent a Stoiber-led government. Many far right voters were enthused by Stoiber, who has a record for racism. But while Stoiber was able to massively increase the vote of the CSU in his native Bavaria by 987,000, 27%, in the rest of Germany the CDU’s sister party was only able to increase its vote by 160,000. Indeed in 9 of the 15 regional states outside Bavaria the CDU’s vote actually fell.

Greens make best ever poll – PDS biggest losers

The Greens recorded a large rise in their votes, gaining 808,000. This took their percentage to 8.6%, a best ever result. This was in marked contrast to fall in votes the Green has suffered in other elections, since they formed their coalition with the SPD. The general election gain was based upon the anti-Iraq war position they adopted, an increased environmental awareness following the floods, and by the fact that many social democratic supporters gave their second vote to the Greens. (Voters in Germany have two voters, one for their constituency representative, and the other for a party list. The SPD "second" vote was 1,571,000 lower than its "first" vote, and many of these went to the Greens).

The big loser was the left-wing PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism – ex-governing state party in the Stalinist GDR). The PDS has a mass base in East Germany but is a very small force in West Germany. In the East, the party is leading many local councils and has joined two coalition governments with the SPD, on federal state level. Here they have participated in social cuts and privatisations. Especially in Berlin, the so-called "red-red coalition" is implementing the sharpest attacks against the masses in the post-war history of the city. The SPD-PDS Berlin city government announced a massive package of cuts just five days before the Bundestag election. The most prominent PDS leader, Gregor Gysi, hat to step down as senator for economic affairs in Berlin after being found pocketing lucrative ’air miles’ while on business trips.

Socialist election campaign

SAV, the CWI section in Germany, stood seven first-past-the-post constituency candidates in the elections (from only 23 candidates to the left of the PDS nationally).

The campaign was directed against the anti-working class policies of both Schröder and Stoiber, and emphasised the need for a new workers’ party.

SAV organised a contingent for a 40,000 strong demonstration organised by Attac (the anti capitalist organisation) and trade union youth organisations, just one week before the election. This demonstration was against neo-liberal policies, social cuts, and war. Afterwards, SAV members organised a successful meeting, with more than 120 people listening to Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (CWI) TD (member of parliament) from Ireland speak.

The seven SAV candidates polled 2,192 votes, in total.

The PDS was rewarded for their anti-working class policies with a collapse of their vote. They lost nearly 600,000 votes and failed to make the five percent hurdle that is the minimum to get into parliament. They only won two constituencies and will only have these two MPs in the next parliament. This is a disaster for the party and will probably lead to a deep crisis. This result for the PDS is a setback for the left and many who gave their vote to Schröder or the Greens to stop Stoiber will regret, once the government starts further attacks on the working class and changes its course on the war question, that there is no left-wing opposition in parliament anymore.

But the defeat for the PDS was not a defeat for socialist policies, quite the contrary. The PDS only carries socialism in its name but not in its politics. The decline in votes was a rejection of the right-wing policies of the party leadership. It was a rejection of participation in local right wing governments, of acceptance of privileges, of adaptation to the social democrats, and of politicians with no backbone. 300,000 former PDS voters did not vote at all. Workers and youth expected a different policy from the PDS and instead all they got was the same as they have experienced from the social democrats. So they turned their backs on the party.

In contrast, a Green candidate, Christian Ströbele, proved that it is possible to win elections on a left-wing programme. He stood in one Berlin constituency and was put to the bottom of the party slate for seats. Nevertheless Ströbele won a seat because of his opposition to the Green Party leadership’s previous war policies in Serbia and Afghanistan. He became the first ever Green candidate to win a constituency seat, using the slogan "to vote Ströbele means to torture Fischer" (the Green party leader and Foreign Minister) and claimed to be "social and a socialist".

Stormy struggles ahead

The move to the right of the PDS will probably continue, as their policies will now be even more dominated by their East German government wing. This poses the need for a new workers’ party even more sharply. The working class is without strong political representation and this absence will be felt more and more as the SPD government continues on its capitalist course. Out of the conflicts of the coming years will grow the idea that such a representation has to be formed. This year has already seen a number of strikes of metal workers, building workers, printers, bank workers and other sectors. These conflicts were mild winds in comparison to the stormy struggles that lie ahead.

With the economy already stagnating, huge pressures for cuts in public spending and the mass unemployment on high levels the working class will have to fight back sooner or later. The trade union leaders tried not to come into open conflict with the SPD/Green government and openly campaigned for a vote for them. But dissatisfaction is widespread amongst the trade union rank and file and already the coming wage round in the public sector later this year could see the first open conflict between the trade unions and the government (especially as the government is under financial pressure because it cannot keep within the limits of the Maastricht criteria for its budget deficit).

From the point of view of the development of workers’ consciousness, and the prospects for the creation of a new workers’ party, the continuation of the Red-Green government is an advantage because it will speed up the breach between the unions and the social democracy.

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September 2002