Germany: SPD receives severe punishment for demolition of the welfare state

New elections called for the autumn

As a result of the catastrophic, though not unexpected, election result in the region of North Rhine Westphalia, the SPD leadership announced early general elections for September 2005 as an attempted way out of their present difficulties.

One thousand four hundred journalists and representatives from thirty-one national and international TV stations gathered in front of the regional state parliament yesterday to await first reactions from politicians and parties after the first results were announced. This is an illustration of the important implications this election had and will have in determining the political landscape in Germany in the next period.

After thirty-nine years in power, the SPD will no longer be represented in the government of its former heartland and most populous regional state of North Rhine Westphalia. This region is home of the former mining industry in the Ruhr area. With very strong working class traditions, it has long been an SPD stronghold. Unemployment in the region is one of the highest in the Western part of Germany. Over the past two years, the SPD has lost one quarter of its active membership in the area.

The CDU (Christian Democratic Union), the main opposition party, benefited most from the more than 6% increase in turn-out. (63%, compared to 56.7% in 2000)

With a share of 44.8% of the vote, they gained an extra one million votes. This by no means reflects high hopes for a CDU-led government but rather a determination to make the SPD reap what they have sown: the implementation of the most vicious and anti-working class policy since the end of the Second World War and the dismantling of the welfare state.

After this election, the Greens are no longer represented in any regional state government and with the prospect of a change in the national government, are likely to face an internal debate on strategy and orientation as well.

In an attempt to mobilise voters, the trade union IG BCE (covering the mining, chemistry and energy sector) flew planes across the region which called upon the electorate to turn out and vote. Because of the close links between the trade union bureaucracy and the SPD leadership, this was obviously aimed at SPD core voters. But while the SPD’s total vote only went down by 83,373 they were not capable of mobilising enough voters to prevent the dramatic squeeze in votes percentage-wise. While their share of the overall vote dropped by 5.7%, it dropped by 9% amongst workers and trade unionists.

The adoption of a more anti-capitalist rhetoric and the attack on the greedy “locusts” on the part of the SPD leadership in the last few weeks was welcomed by a lot of working class people in Germany but at the same time, they did not trust the SPD. They did not believe that this rhetoric was more than an electoral stunt.

With 2.2 % on average and a total of 181,886 votes, WASG (Work and Social Justice – the Electoral Alternative), the new party launched by trade unionists and activists from the social movements received a very credible result. In the main, their vote came from former SPD voters (50,000) as well as from people who had not voted in the previous election (60,000).

WASG did very well in the cities in the Ruhr area where they often received 3% and in the case of Oberhausen even scored 4.3% of the vote. Members of SAV, Socialist Alternative (CWI in Germany) stood as WASG candidates in the elections, receiving creditable votes.

In the national media, WASG’s result was reported as credible and as a good start for a relatively new formation. Despite the fact that some individuals in its regional leadership had still hoped for a 5% plus result, the membership does not seem to be disappointed with the result.

Also from a financial point of view, the election result was a success for WASG. According to the German election legislation, every party that scores more than 1% of the vote is entitled to a certain amount of money per vote cast. In total, the WASG may receive up to € 300,000. This money can be vital in making sure WASG can run a good election campaign for the general elections.

The PDS, the former East German state party, received 0.9% of the vote and thereby once again demonstrated a trend which Gregor Gysi, one of the most prominent leaders of the PDS, described as: ”In the foreseeable future, the PDS will not play an important role in the West”. Obviously, part of Gysi’s own agenda is to open up discussions with the WASG in order to come to some form of collaboration.

The neo-fascist NPD was not capable of repeating its previous electoral success in Saxony, where they now form a parliamentary group in the regional parliament. However, with 0.9% or 73,959 votes, they managed to significantly improve their 2000 election result of just over 2,300 votes.

Given the fact that at the beginning of the election campaign, they were confident of getting the necessary 5% to enter the regional parliament, this is a blow to the NPD which may lead to internal tensions and a possible questioning of the “parliamentary road” by the openly violent wing inside but also outside the party.

Early elections

“With the bitter election result for my party in North Rhine Westphalia the political support for our reforms to continue has been called into question”, Schröder said when he explained the reasons for heading for early elections.

There are a number of reasons as to why Schröder and Münterfering, the chair person of the SPD and initiator of the “locust debate” opted for early elections. The SPD is facing a severe crisis and is stumbling from one electoral defeat to another. In the past period, they have come under pressure from various sides. The bosses have made it very clear that they are not willing to allow a pause in attacks on the working class. As far as they are concerned, Agenda 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg.

The ruling class in Germany wants to see further attacks on the welfare state and in the work places. As far as they are concerned, they want to create an even larger low wage sector and want to get rid of the labour laws which they still regard as too rigid. The liberal party, FDP, the bluntest representative of the ruling class, openly speaks about the need to take on the trade unions in the next period. Guido Westerwelle, the FDP’s chair person recently referred to the trade union bureaucrats as the “most dangerous locusts in German society”. However the fact that this time the FDP lost a third of the votes they received in the 2000 elections shows that these policies do not generate popular support.

In the eyes of the bosses, the SPD is no longer their most reliable ally to push through any further attacks.

The SPD has also come under pressure from the so-called left within its own ranks. Oskar Lafontaine, former finance minister of the first term Schröder government who resigned from that post as a consequence of Schröder’s neo-liberal policy and who has also got a lot of authority amongst wider layers within the German working class, is openly contemplating joining the WASG.

There are others within the SPD Bundestag parliamentary group like Ottmar Schreiner who have signed an appeal which calls upon the government to withdraw “Hartz IV” (part of Agenda 2010 which attacks the unemployed). In the week prior to the election, rumours leaked out that 12 MP’s were considering leaving the SPD. Given the tiny majority of the SPD in the Bundestag, this would have significantly weakened and partly paralysed the government. Even now, the SPD majority in their parliamentary faction finds it increasingly difficult to impose discipline on the whole of the faction to push through even smaller counter-reforms.

Given the dire economic situation and a further drop in tax revenues, the government knows that they have to implement further attacks. By the time of autumn 2006, the initial date for the general elections, they would have been even more exposed and hated. Such a time delay would have given the WASG enough time to develop more of a national profile and to develop into more of a substantial force which the SPD clearly does not want to see happening.

Cut your losses

The SPD is adopting a cut your losses and run strategy. On the one hand, they are trying to create an atmosphere of fear amongst the working class. By speaking of the danger of the “black republic”, they want to create the impression that a “take over” by the CDU (their colour is black) on all levels would worsen the situation of working class people by implementing “pure market” policies. The SPD, and trade union leaders will campaign on the basis that they are the “lesser evil”, but this does not at all take into account that the biggest drop in post-1945 living standards has been brought about by this SPD led government!

On the other hand, Schröder and Co. also think that by going back into opposition, it will give them some breathing space to get the party back under control. The so-called SPD Left who had been on the offensive are now in a more difficult position. Are they going to take the risk to sacrifice their political careers by moving towards the WASG which is still fairly unknown? Are they going to make a stand against the neo-liberal policies of Schröder and the SPD leadership or bow down under the banner of “anti-CDU unity”?

Lafontaine has not yet come out with any significant statement. On a TV programme on the night of the election, he only repeated what he had said before and that is that there would be no room for him left in the SPD if they did not change course.

The next few days will probably lead to some more clarity in relation to that question.

Even if taken by surprise by Schröder’s decision, the CDU stands every chance of winning these elections. In opinion polls, they are receiving up to nearly 50% of the vote and also the stock market reacted positively when Schröder announced early elections.

But there is a clear danger on the part of the ruling class of underestimating the current situation and the huge anger and dissatisfaction that exists amongst the working class with any of the established parties.

A CDU government would need to increase the attacks on the working class and therefore would undoubtedly be confronted with an increase in struggles including major clashes with the trade unions. Unlike under a SPD government, the trade union leadership would find it difficult to keep workers in check as a CDU led government attacked living standards.

In addition to that, the economic situation will lead to greater turmoil and instability. As these elections have shown, events can and will change very rapidly in the near future. This will provide the workers’ movement with great challenges and big opportunities.

What way forward for the WASG?

WASG has correctly decided to stand in the general elections even if it poses a lot of organisational difficulties to do so. As a small party with comparably little human and financial resources, they will have to do a lot in order to meet the organisational conditions to stand in the elections.

But more so the challenge is of a political nature. The massive sympathy the SPD received for their attack on the locusts or what was called the “debate on capitalism” showed that there is a huge layer within society that is fed up with capitalism and its greedy nature. The working class wants to see an end to mass lay-offs, longer working hours, wage cuts and attacks on their living standards. But it is also true to say that as long as there is no clear alternative to the madness of capitalism, there will be further attacks.

It is possible that the SPD will continue with a more left wing rhetoric to keep voters and parts of the party on board. It is not enough for the WASG to expose the SPD as hypocrites; they will have to start from where the SPD leaves things and explain that in order to really bring about long lasting change in the interests of working class people, the policies of the Schröder government have to be completely rejected and the workers’ movement has to act to bring an end to profit-ridden capitalism.

SAV members (Socialist Alternative – CWI in Germany) will continue to argue the need for the WASG to adopt a fighting socialist programme. The WASG party conference in May has shown that there is an openness for socialist ideas and the need to discuss alternatives to capitalism. With 27% of the vote, the SAV candidate for WASG’s NEC received a very good result and underlined the point that socialists have a place within WASG.

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May 2005