Germany: Record low turn-out in regional elections

What do the WASG and LeftParty.PDS results show?

In the German media, the 26 March regional elections were presented as a ‘first balance sheet’ on the newly elected Merkel government. Against the background of the election results, both the social democrats (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the two parties which form the national government, described the election as a “confirmation” of their policies.

Record low turnout

A total of 17 million voters were asked to cast their votes in three regional state elections and in local elections in Hesse. It is striking that a lot of people did not make use of their democratic right. In the case of Sachsen-Anhalt, a very poor regional state in East Germany, the majority of the electorate stayed at home.

In Baden-Württemberg, a CDU-led regional state, in the South West of the country, the turn out reached 60%. In Rheinland-Pfalz, another Western state, it was just under 54 %. In Sachsen-Anhalt, the turn out dropped as low as 44.5 %.

This is everything but a confirmation of the government’s policies. All parties have lost votes in absolute figures, despite a percentage wise increase, in some cases.

Many people were not interested in the often very boring election campaigns of the established parties, which focussed on personalities rather than content. At the height of the public sector strike in Baden Württemberg, which has now entered its seventh week, and is the longest public sector strike in German history, for at least 80 years, workers were not particularly eager to hear whether the CDU’s contestant had “tried marijuana” or whether the SPD’s main candidate had once “faked an orgasm!”

In addition to the low turn out, there are an increasing number of people who feel no particular bond with any party. In Rheinland-Pfalz, 16 % who took part in the elections only decided on election day which party to vote for. Many are disappointed with politics, in general, and do not feel represented by any party. This is not to say that they do not have an opinion.

Sachsen-Anhalt, for example, has seen and tried a variety of different government coalitions over the past years. In the eyes of the many working class people, including the unemployed, youth and pensioners, none of the main parties have delivered for them. The opposite is the case: 68 % believe that the way things are run in German society is “rather unfair and unjust”. As a consequence, 40 % say that they stand back or distance themselves from political parties and politics.

Election results for WASG and the Left

As a fairly new and small party, the WASG (Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice) obviously had some disadvantages compared to the established parties. They were often struggling with a lack of financial resources and did not have a presence across the whole state. Nevertheless, this can only partly explain why the WASG did not succeed in filling the existing political vacuum. In comparison with September’s general elections, the WASG, in Rheinland-Pfalz, in particular, was not able to build on its achievements last September, when they won 279,000 votes (5.6%). This time the WASG polled 44,700 votes (2.5%). In Baden Württemberg, the WASG’s vote fell from 219,100 (3.8%) to 121,800 (3.1%).

There is more than one reason why this is so.

Looking at the results more closely, than there are noticeable, bigger regional differences. In Mannheim, an industrial city in Baden Württemberg, the Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice scored 6.9% and 4.77% in the two constituencies. Those results are above the regional average and reflect the differences in presence and roots of the party. The importance of sinking roots is also reflected in the outcome in different cities across Hesse. In Marburg, they polled 9.3%, in Kassel, 6.8 per cent (and even better results in the districts where SAV, Socialist Alternative (CWI in Germany) has got a strong presence and conducted a very ambitious election campaign) and 7.3% cent in Frankfurt.

Especially in Rheinland-Pfalz, the WASG suffered some set backs which are also were related to internal problems. The election list in Rheinland-Pfalz was a WASG slate, but as part of the process of building a new left force on a national scale, LeftParty.PDS members stood candidates on that list. However, the former regional chair of the LeftParty.PDS left the party last October to join the conservative Christian Democrats. Also, the WASG member who was meant to become the head of the election list left the party due to internal quarrels. On top of that, a left MP for the region is being sued because of tax fraud. In the light of these poor public images and with many internal difficulties, some mainstream newspapers even commented that they are actually surprised that in the polls the WASG still scored between 2 and 3 %.

One of the main issues in the election campaign, in general, was the lack of orientation towards the working class and the strike movement which rocket the country in the midst of the election campaign. In Stuttgart, for example, SAV, Socialist Alternative (CWI in Germany) members, who are an active part of the WASG (Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice), argued that the WASG’s placards and posters should be devoted to expressing solidarity and support with the striking workers who are facing ferocious anti-strike propaganda in the pro-boss’s media. But initially, this argument was rejected, as many argued it would lose the party support. Clear support for the strike and the working class would have underlined the different character of the WASG, as a new party that stands 100 % on the side of the working class.

Left, anti-neo-liberal party needed

In a press statement on election night, Gregor Gysi, former leader of the PDS, now, together with Oskar Lafontaine, joint leader of the Left parliamentary group, described the results in Baden Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz as credible. He went on to say: “This time, the attitude and position of the Berlin WASG had a negative effect on the result. Also, the fact that there is not as yet a united party played a negative role.” Thomas Händel, member of the WASG National Committee, also said that the internal differences in the WASG had an impact.

They are referring to Berlin where the WASG has decided to stand against the LeftParty.PDS in this September’s regional state elections. This is not because the Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice in Berlin opposes the idea of a united left party. But it is the concrete circumstances in Berlin which forced the WASG to adopt this position. The LeftParty.PDS is part of the SPD-led Berlin City government and, as part of that government it has carried out social cuts and cuts in wages.

Undoubtedly, there are elements within both LeftParty.PDS and the WASG who would like to use the election results to press ahead with a quick merger of the two parties. However, it seems that even within the national of the WASG, they find it difficult to find a clear majority for such a position.

Their attitude does not take into account the real problems in Berlin, described above. It also fails to mention that the LeftParty.PDS’s role in selling 48,000 council flats in Dresden, to one of the so-called “locusts”, financial investors, and the negative effect this had in the election campaign. In Dresden, the LeftParty.PDS is the second biggest party faction in the council and the housing sale was only possible because 9 out of its 17 councillors voted in favour of selling all of the city’s remaining council flats.

Even Oskar Lafontaine, a leader of the WASG, intervened in Dresden and opposed the privatisation of council flats. He described privatisation as one of the “Halt lines” that cannot be crossed if you want to carry out left policies.

Carrying out privatisations, especially at such a scale as in Dresden, equals a loss in credibility for the Left. This is underlined by the fact that the Berlin LeftParty.PDS is down to 13 per cent in the latest polls.

In Sachsen-Anhalt, the result for the LeftParty.PDS is described as a ‘success story’ and leading figures within the PDS want to use the result as an argument to take part in local governments. While the LeftParty.PDS saw a percentage increase in its votes, their actual vote dropped by 19,000, compared with the last election four years ago.

Balance sheet for left

Furthermore, when drawing a balance sheet, the joint parliamentary group of the WASG and the LeftParty.PDS will have to answer the question over whether they have done enough to help organise resistance against the continuing neo-liberal policies.

Those questions must not be swept under the carpet. The questions on content and demands for a new left formation of the working class in Germany are decisive, if this new left force is to win back the trust of the working class, pensioners and youth.

It is more than certain that these elections will now be followed by a series of government attacks. The governing ‘Grand Coalition’ – the Merkel government – is a bosses’ government. Merkel’s administration set itself a clear task when it formed a government last year: to carry on where the SPD-led Schröder government finished. The bosses demand an increase in the pace of attacks. A new wave of attacks will include an increase on VAT, an increase in retirement age, a longer working week, and another round of what they call “reforms” in the National Health Service.

This will mean more battles with the working class. The Left will have opportunities to fight-back and to gain support, if it shows that it is serious in struggle and if it offers a real alternative.

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