Germany: Political establishment fears rise of Left Party during elections

New party has potential to become third biggest party in Bundestag

Election Day, on September 18, will most likely see the return of the Christian Democrats (CDU) to power but the new Left Party has potential to develop into third biggest party in the Bundestag. Below, Holger Dröge, in Berlin, and Tanja Niemeier, from the CWI, look the general political situation, the possibilities for the left and they outline the need for a bold socialist programme.

Political establishment fears rise of Left Party during elections

An early general election will take place in Germany on September 18 and if one thing is as good as certain about the outcome, it is that the Social Democratic/Green government, led by Schröder, is going to lose the election as a result of its brutal austerity policy.

In a final and desperate battle for survival, Schröder is claiming that the return of the Christian Democrats would mark the end of the German welfare state. The return of a party which does not care about people, as Schröder puts it. And it is true, the CDU had been in power for 16 years before the SPD led government took office in 1998 and is responsible for having massively shifted wealth from the poor to the rich. However, the SPD and Green coalition government did not only take off from where the Christian Democrats left things, but intensified the attacks on the welfare state, against trade union rights and against the living standards of the working class as a whole. Under the Schröder government, unemployment has breached the 5 million mark for the first time in post-war German history.

In fact, the past seven years of SPD-led government rule have been extremely successful years for big business: The rich and super rich have seen massive tax cuts. At the same time, poverty has reached unprecedented levels since World War 2. With the introduction of the ‘Hartz IV’ legislation, which reduced unemployment benefits to € 345 per month, many unemployed people have no choice but to get their daily meals in soup kitchens. At the same time, we have seen a dramatic increase in company profits. The number of income millionaires has almost doubled in a few years, while real wages have fallen for most workers.

This has lead to mounting pressure on the government and to a wave of struggle from below to defend living standards. The government became increasingly unpopular and organised an early general election in the hope of regaining authority before launching the further attacks which bosses want.

But to carry out those attacks would be the main tasks of a Christian Democratic (CDU) led government, as the bosses want to see a further decrease in wages of about 15%, limits on trade union rights, attacks on redundancy laws, cuts and privatisation of the Health Service and pensions etc.

Left Party/ PDS poll gains

The Christian Democrats are currently leading the polls by a comfortable10% margin but are nevertheless worried about the strong performance of the Left Party and its impact on the outcome of the elections. The Left Party/ PDS is the new name for the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism – the former East German state party under Stalinism) which has opened its lists to candidates from the relatively newly formed WASG (Election Alternative – Work and Social Justice).

With around 30%, the Left Party is currently leading in the opinion polls in East Germany. In West Germany, the Left Party stands at around 7% of the vote, which would bring them to a national result of between 8 to 10% and would turn them into the third biggest party, outscoring the Greens and the Liberals, for what is, in reality, the first national test for the WASG. In the 2002 election, the then PDS vote actually fell to 4% nationally, with 16.8% in the east but only 1.1% in the west. This increase in its vote is largely due to the Left Party/PDS’s alliance with the WASG and Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD Finance minister, who is seen as the major national figure challenging neo-liberalism.

The opinion polls are reflection of the dramatic changes that are taking place in German society at the moment. People feel angry and let down by a system that increasingly seems to only serve the interests of the rich. They want to see change. The so-called debate on capitalism and the “locust debate”, which took place in the run up to the regional state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, and were an attempt by the SPD to keep working class voters on track (see previous articles on emphasizes a new opening for anti-capitalist and even socialist ideas in a country where bourgeois politicians 15 years ago declared that “Marx is dead and Jesus lives”.

But recently, Germany’s main political magazine, Der Spiegel, carried on its front page a picture of Marx with the headline “The return of the spectre” (alluding to the Communist Manifesto’s opening lines).

German society has become more political and more polarised. The fundamental differences and interests that exist between the working class and the ruling class have become part of working class consciousness again. While scepticism with all political parties still remain, there is at the same time increased curiosity and interest about what the Left Party and the WASG have got to say. The rallies which hosted Oskar Lafontaine, now one of the most prominent and popular figure heads of the WASG, have drawn crowds of between 500 to 2,500 people in different cities. When Lafontaine spoke at the recent Left Party/ PDS party conference he referred to himself as a democratic socialist, something he has done on previous occasions.

The political establishment, instantly ridiculing the coming into existence of the WASG, and then its alliance with the Left Party, are now in fear. The SPD is trying to whip up a scenario where they try to portray themselves as the only saviours of the welfare state.

Stoiber, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU – the CDU’s counterpart in Bavaria) has come out with statements such as, “I don’t want the frustrated [referring to East Germans] to decide upon the outcome of the German elections” and “only the stupid calves choose their own butcher” (again referring to East Germans as those who are more likely to vote for the Left Party). This has been a big blunder and has made Angela Merkel’s campaigning in the East more difficult, despite the fact that she comes from the East originally and thought this would work to her advantage. But people there see her as part of the political establishment and not as one of “theirs”.

The ruling class have also tried to portray Lafontaine as a “champagne socialist” living in luxury because of his own private wealth and the big money he earns as a speaker and as a columnist for Germany’s main tabloid. While socialists argue for workers’ representatives to be paid the average wage of a skilled worker, Lafontaine countered this attack by saying that it is not a crime to be rich and, in contrast to the whole political establishment, that he was demanding a tax increase for the rich while all the others attack ordinary working class people.

However, this, in combination with the fear amongst some layers that a CDU-led government may indeed be worse than an SPD led government, has probably had some effect. In opinion polls during the past weeks the vote of the Left Party was slightly squeezed down from 12% to 7 or 8% nationally, which would still mean it could win about 50 MP’s.

However huge opportunities also bring with them new challenges and complications. And indeed, the development of the Left Party/ PDS and the WASG is not straightforward. Because of the Left Party/PDS’s lack of a clear anti-capitalist, never mind socialist, programme, and its involvement in carrying out cuts on regional levels, there is a danger of quick disappointment with its policy once they get elected.

At the moment, the WASG is growing. Within three months, its membership has doubled and reached 10,000 nationally. The coming together with the PDS has led to a broad discussion about the future of the left in Germany. Those discussions have politicised society and have motivated activists in social movements and in factories.

But this process does not come without contradictions. It was the neo-liberal policy of the SPD which led to the setting up of the WASG. But the WASG was also formed as a result of the PDS’s (now Left Party) involvement in cuts in regional state government coalitions.

However, a number of activists understandably strive for “unity on the left” and have, therefore, so far held back their criticisms of the Left Party/PDS. This creates problems for the WASG, as some working class and youth, particularly in East Germany, who see themselves as left of the Left Party/PDS, are now more difficult to reach out to. This is expressed in the mood on the ground during this election campaign, especially in SPD-PDS-run Berlin, where the cuts have been harshest. While the Left Party/PDS is the strongest force in East Germany in the opinion polls, in the streets there is little enthusiasm or interest.

Opinion polls in Berlin (where the PDS is part of the ruling government coalition) even indicate that if the WASG had stood independently, and against the Left Party/PDS, they would have received almost as many votes as the Left Party. In East Berlin, the vote of the Left Party/ PDS would – against the national trend – drop from 49% to 24%.

In the West of the country, deep scepticism towards the predecessor of the “former Stalinist State Party” (as the mainstream media and political parties refer to the Left Party/PDS) remains, and will probably mean that the potential of a new party will not be seized to the full.

Start of the election campaign

The leadership of the Left Party/PDS is already trying to lower voters’ expectations: They tried and succeeded in lowering the level demanded for a minimum wage (there is no minimum wage in Germany at the moment), which was originally put forward by the WASG.

In essence, the Left Party/PDS defends the existence of a low wage sector in Germany. Instead of demanding the abolition of Hartz IV and € 1 jobs, they simply demand that people on €1 jobs get a proper work contract to cut across “the humiliation which they are forced to put up with since Hartz IV”. This proposal does not entail any improvement of the living conditions of the unemployed but serves as a justification of the attacks.

And, of course, this is only the logical consequence of the Left Party/PDS’s involvement in implementing Hartz IV in the regional states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin.

The start of the real election campaign was quite boring. The mass meetings and rallies which are traditionally organised by the political parties have only just started. And, unfortunately, the election placards of the Left Party/PDS are not very political, with slogans like “100% for the East” or “For an end to melancholy”.

Since there is only little independent election campaign material by the WASG, there is sometimes only little enthusiasm to go out campaigning on the part of the WASG membership.

Members of Socialist Alternatiave (SAV), the CWI in Germany, are involved in the WASG campaign for the WASG to produce its own election material and, with others, been able to get the WASG in Berlin to print 100,000 copies of its election campaign paper.

There is mounting pressure on the Left Party/PDS. On the shop floor and trade union level, more activists are getting involved and will want to add their experiences from the protest movements, which took place in 2003 and 2004, to that debate. This will inevitably lead to conflict with the leadership of the Left Party.

It is also possible that a policy of “accepting the logic of capitalism” on the part of the PDS will cause rapid disillusions with the new party. This may come quicker than Lafontaine and Gysi, the Left Party/PDS’s figurehead, anticipate at the moment. And it is also unclear in what direction the party will develop and what forces will dominate its policy in the future. Working class struggles and protest movements could shift the party and its current leadership to the left. To what extent this will happen is difficult to foresee.

If it were to be the case for the Left Party, involving the WASG, to end up carrying out the same kind of policy as the PDS does at the moment, there is also a possibility that the opportunity of building a genuine new left force which represents working class interests, will get lost. Such a backlash would lead to future complications in relation to new attempts of building mass workers parties.

Socialist Alternative (SAV) and the elections

Before the campaign started, the SAV warned about some of the developments taking place inside WASG and its relationship with the PDS. We opposed a common slate between PDS and WASG for these elections and we still oppose a bureaucratic and rushed merger of the two parties. When the election alliance was discussed we argued that the PDS should leave the regional governments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin before any negotiations take place. What is important to SAV is the coming together of those forces that have been, and are involved in, the resistance against the government’s cuts package, Agenda 2010, and the attacks of the bosses in the workplaces. We think a new party should be about organising and giving a voice to those who fight against privatisation of hospitals, against the increase of public transport fares – in short; those who fight the PDS policy in Berlin.

It is decisive to further advance the participation of activists and militants in the work places, trade unions etc to build a new mass workers’ party.

Relations with the trade unions

“The response is overwhelming. Our appeal ‘We vote leftwing’ runs into open doors with many trade unionists. So far, 1,500 men and women have signed the appeal on the internet”, said Walter Meyer, spokesperson of the initiative ‘Trade unionists vote leftwing’.

Important developments are indeed taking place inside the trade unions. In past decades, the trade union leadership always supported the SPD in election campaigns, both politically and financially.

Given the attacks by the SPD-led government on workers’ rights and against the welfare state, this alliance has become feeble. In fact, the government’s policy is an important reason why important layers of public sector and metal workers’ trade union officials joined WASG.

“The coming into existence of the Left Party/PDS does not only alter the relations between the SPD and the trade unions, it also changes the relations of forces in the trade unions itself. The SPD can no longer rely on trade union officials to recommend them as the ‘least worst option’ to the works force”, reports the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. The Left Party aggravates the polarisation that exists within the trade union apparatus.

Perspectives after the elections

It is possible that German big business will have to live with a ‘grand coalition’ as a possible outcome of the elections. The anger built up over the years over the vicious attacks on living standards and working conditions, will see a probable 10% polling for the Left Party that could cut across a clear CDU, CSU, FDP (liberal party) majority.

If the ruling class were able to discredit the Left Party through attacks in the media and to shrink its vote, a CDU/FDP government would have the task of carrying out another major offensive against the working class.

If the SPD ends up in opposition, they will most likely adopt more leftwing rhetoric against the government’s attacks. They will try to re-establish their damaged ties with the trade unions and will try to win back the confidence of the rank and file. As with the “locust” discussion last May, when SPD leaders opportunistically attacked finance capitalism, the effect this will have, in the short term, is limited given that working people still regard the SPD as responsible for dismantling the welfare state,

However, the Left Party, in turn, would need to shift further to the left to differentiate itself significantly from the SPD. To do this would mean adopting a more outspoken anti-capitalist and even socialist rhetoric, but not all Left Party leaders would do this. Elements within the Left Party may want to use the next parliament to prepare for a future government coalition with the SPD. What is going to be crucial for both the Left Party’s and the WASG’s future in the next period is to what extent the WASG and/or the Left Party will use their probably sizeable number of Bundestag members to advance and encourage struggles of the working class that are, without doubt, on the agenda if the CDU takes power and launches another round of attacks.

The discussion around the question of a quick merger of the Left Party and the WASG, which the majority of the leaders of the two parties are aiming for, will also provoke new debates, especially amongst the WASG membership, and will maybe even lead to breakaways from the WASG. The SAV continues to oppose a merger with a Left Party that is sitting in regional and local coalitions and implementing cuts. Instead it argues for the WASG to built on its potential and involve all those opposing the ruling class’ offensive. To build a strong mass party of the working class that fights for clear socialist policies.

Germany is entering a new period which will probably lead to a further politicisation and polarisation in society. Despite all the talk of a recovery of the German economy, mass redundancies are still on the agenda. Volkswagen (VW) has this week announced that it aims to sack 10,000 workers in Germany, alone.

The capitalists underestimate the situation: They draw the conclusion that the betrayal of the trade union leadership in the past means that there won’t be any major battles in the future.

But major attacks by a Merkel government will enrage the working class, and the trade union leadership is unlikely to hold back mass protests. Even the renowned right wing chemical union, IG Chemie, finds itself in a position of having to warn of political strikes if there are attacks on the trade unions. If attacks by a CDU-led government entail attacks on national wage bargaining agreements, redundancy laws, and other trade union rights, mass mobilisations and strike movements will be back on the agenda.

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September 2005