Germany: Political turmoil follows regional elections

Left winger leader, Oskar Lafontaine, leaves ruling social democrats and calls for new left alliance

As a consequence of the disastrous defeat in the regional state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, the former heartland of the ruling social democrats, the SPD, in Germany, Chancellor Schröder issued a surprise call to bring the general election one year forward.

The SPD scored its worst election result in the region for 51 years. In the run up to the elections, the SPD leadership adopted more leftwing rhetoric to try to win back their core voters. In attacking financial investors as a “plague of locusts”, they unleashed what was called the “debate on capitalism” in Germany. The debate dominated the national media forcing even Deutsche Bank boss, Ackermann, who is one of the biggest ‘locusts’, to say that he does not know anyone who is in favour of “pure” capitalism.

While a large majority of people agreed with the SPD’s verbal criticisms, most did not believe the SPD was serious about opposing capitalism. Therefore, the SPD got a battering in the polling booths, for what many working class people correctly see as government policies that have meant the most severe attacks on their living standards since 1945.

SPD and Greens in crisis

With the Christian Democrats (CDU) decisively leading the polls, it is very unlikely that the SPD led-government coalition, which includes the Greens, will be elected for a third term in forthcoming general elections. This has led to a situation within the coalition which the paper, ‘Welt am Sonntag’, describes as “…a sinking ship that was abandoned by the captain. The Social Democrats and its governing partner are fiercely fighting over the few life boats and by doing so kick each other in the side quite heavily every so often.”

Müntefering, the initiator of the “locust debate, will politically lead the SPD into the election campaign. Schröder is trying to pay ‘hush-money’ to the so-called leftwing of the parliamentary group by offering some minor concessions in relation to Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV, the government’s hated austerity programmes.

The election campaign has started already and the Greens and SPD have started to blame each other for the failure of their government. There is a degree of panic within the Greens. They are no longer represented in any regional state government and with the national government coalition coming to an end; they may find themselves out of the ministerial game for a while. And while hints of ending the ‘red-green partnership’ have been rejected by the SPD leadership, at the same time, they dropped hints that they are open for a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). For their part, the CDU/CSU, anxious to win, are trying hide their policies of cuts. Indeed, they are even hinting that they will soften parts of Hartz IV! But Angela Merkel, the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor, is widely described as the “German Thatcher”, something that shows the type of policies she really stands for and a fact that the SPD will try to use in order to portray themselves as the “lesser evil”.

New left alliance of WASG and PDS?

WASG (Work and Social Justice- the Electoral Alternative), the new left party in Germany, stood in the North Rhine Westphalia elections for the first time and scored 2.2%, around 181,000 votes. Significantly, the WSAG scored 9% amongst the unemployed to become the third largest party amongst this part of the population.

The media has given a lot of coverage to the WASG, which is an indication they are starting to take the WASG more seriously. Oskar Lafontaine, the former finance minister under the first term Schröder government, who resigned because he was in disagreement with the SPD’s neo-liberal policies, has finally sent back his SPD membership card and announced that he would be ready to stand on a ticket of an alliance which involves the WASG and the PDS.

According to the latest opinion polls, a left formation which involved Oskar Lafontaine would have the potential to win up to 18% of the vote, which underlines, once again, the desire for a genuine left force amongst a decisive section of the German working class.

Lafontaine’s announcement poses big opportunities but also dangers. Understandably, there is a wish to achieve maximum unity amongst the left and opponents of neo-liberalism, to get the left elected into the Bundestag (parliament) in September and to strike a decisive blow against the establishment.

So far, the PDS (party of democratic socialism – formerly the ruling state party in East Germany), has only got two representatives left in Parliament. They lost their status as parliamentary group in the 2002 elections, when they failed to get over the required 5% hurdle and failed to get a majority vote for their candidates in three constituencies. There are some inside the PDS that fear that the party’s role as a purely East German phenomenon will be sealed in the coming general elections if they cannot get back into the Bundestag. Gregor Gysi, the most popular and charismatic leader in the PDS, therefore pushes for an alliance with WASG. However, there are others, like PDS MP Petra Pau, who is highly sceptical of any joint venture with WASG. She is an elected MP for a Berlin constituency and is worried about the huge pressure the PDS could come under in the city where the PDS is infamous for presiding over cuts. The PDS is part of the ruling regional government coalition in Berlin, along with the SPD, and has made severe cuts in the public sector. The PDS is directly responsible for crèche closures, privatisation, and a 10% wage cut for public sector workers. Wherever they have taken on government responsibilities, the PDS carried out similar policies. As a result, former PDS members have joined WASG.

The PDS’s involvement in making cuts should be the key issue in the debate about forming a new WASG/PDS alliance. Up until now, the public debate has focussed legal questions and on secondary issues. The PDS has offered to reserve high up positions on their ‘PDS- open list’ slate to WASG members. But the WASG leadership does not accept this offer. With having won twice as many votes in the North Rhine Westphalia elections as the PDS, the WSAG leaders feel they are in a stronger position in West Germany.

Officially, the WASG has a position that it will not get involved in any coalition that involves parties that carry out social cuts.

Members of Socialist Alternative (SAV), the CWI in Germany, who are active within WASG, argue that one of the preconditions to entering formal co-operation with the PDS should be that party’s withdrawal from government coalitions with the SPD.

The working class does not want left unity on paper but in practice. They want to see a real alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of the SPD government. They are fed up with attacks on their living standards. Undoubtedly, hopes are raised by Lafontaine’s ‘reappearance’ on the political arena, and pressure is mounting that the left, which often seems to be divided, should now come together.

In the last analysis, however, it is only unity around a programme that can strengthen the position of the working class.

The SAV is arguing for the WASG to adopt and seriously campaign for a bold programme of action to defend and improve living standards, while also explaining that any such advances could only be made permanent if part and parcel of a socialist transformation of society.

The WASG should organise a special conference to democratically discuss on what grounds they want to enter cooperation with the PDS. 50% of PDS members have indicated that they are open towards cooperation with Lafontaine. WASG members should welcome the possibility of a joint all-German left party but should appeal to PDS members to end any involvement by their party in social and wage cuts.

The current developments have already led to a widespread politicisation in German society. The issue of Lafontaine, and what the left should do, is widely discussed amongst Germans and shows that people are interested in politics, as long as they think it matters to them and that it could change their lives.

This illustrates the potential that a genuine new left formation could have in attracting tens of thousands of workers, youth and unemployed, who are currently fed up with all the established parties.

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June 2005