Germany: WASG National Congress

A dangerous move to the right

Amid threats by part of the national leadership to split away, last weekend’s national congress of the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice) agreed to unify with the Linkspartei.PDS (L.PDS; Left Party.PDS) and to take measures against the Berlin WASG if it went ahead and ran its own list of candidates in next September’s regional election.

The congress met against a background of increasingly open threats by leading WASG members to leave the party if they did not get their way: The leading group around Oskar Lafontaine were determined to defeat opposition to their watering down of the WASG’s founding principles in order to secure a quick fusion with the L.PDS.

The central point of debate came around the question of Berlin. This is because since 2001 the Berlin city government has been run by a SPD and L.PDS coalition that has been, in many ways, the national pace setter in carrying out cuts in living standards. This city coalition broke away from national wage agreements in order to cut wages and increase hours, has carried out widespread privatisations and many social cuts. In this situation the Berlin WASG decided that it was impossible to run a joint list with the L.PDS unless it changed its position.

This decision of the Berlin WASG has been under continuous attack from the national WASG leadership as threatening its unification plan. Members of Socialist Alternative (SAV; the CWI in Germany) have played an important part in the Berlin WASG adopting this principled anti-cuts position and consequently have themselves been threatened by the WASG leadership. Nationally the media has heavily followed the debate that has been presented as being between Lafontaine, the L.PDS leaders and the Trotskyist Lucy Redler, the SAV member elected as the top Berlin WASG candidate for September’s election.

From the congress’s opening the WASG leadership continued their policy of undermining the self-confidence of WASG members, stressing that only a fusion with the L.PDS could provide a way forward and, on this basis, trying to build enthusiasm for building an “all-German left party” without any real political discussion on what a new party should stand for.

This actually ignored reality. The 2,200,000 increase in the “left” vote between the 2002 and 2005 Bundestag elections was overwhelmingly due to the WASG’s formation and then Lafontaine joining the WASG shortly before the election. On its own the L.PDS has drifted between stagnation at best and decline, especially in Berlin since forming a coalition, while also proving itself incapable of building support in western Germany. But, because Lafontaine played an important part in securing the left’s 8.7% vote last September, the split threats by his supporters had a big impact in the WASG congress.

Despite this pressure at least a third of the congress delegates supported the Berlin WASG’s decision to stand independently. A resolution moved by the most left wing members of the WASG executive calling for a “fundamental change of course in party building” and opposing any “administrative measures” was only defeated by 156 votes to 143, even after Lafontaine specially intervened to say that this was the most “important decision” facing the congress.

Close votes

The closeness of this vote clearly alarmed the right wing who, fully supported by Linksruck (the group linked to the British SWP), then moved to change the original order of voting to ensure that their resolution was taken before a “soft left” motion that opposed both the Berlin WASG’s position and any “administrative measures” against Berlin. However a number of delegates, frustrated by this defeat, had already left the congress and thereby allowed the right wing a bigger margin of victory in later votes.

In the congress debate it was clear that the arguments in favour of both the Berlin WASG and also against “administrative measures” were gaining ground. Against this background it was Lafontaine himself who had to speak again in order to win a 160 to 121 majority, telling the Berlin WASG to withdraw its list. Subsequently the congress voted with a majority of 150 to 110 for “administrative measures” against Berlin. However, reflecting many delegates’ opposition to expulsion, both Lafontaine and the resolution said that expulsions or closing down the Berlin WASG “should be avoided”. Significantly in none of these votes did Lafontaine win the support of an absolute majority of the delegates who came to the congress.

However the very next day delegates from the home area of Lafontaine’s number one ally Klaus Ernst moved an emergency resolution calling for the expulsion of SAV members. The right wing leadership did not aim to get this passed at the congress but, as one of their supporters explained; this was a “friendly warning”. While the right wing did not want a vote on this resolution, left wing delegates insisted that it was put to the vote and 95% of those who voted voting against expulsions, with large parts of the right wing and some Linksruck elements abstaining.

The blackmailing methods of Lafontaine and his supporters provoked three “soft left” resignations from the WASG executive. One of these three, the very well known intellectual Joachim Bischoff, condemned, in his resignation speech to the congress, the split threats of Klaus Ernst and others along with the consequent “social democratic smell of stable yard manure” in the WASG. Bischoff’s declaration received a huge response from many delegates, but it was made the day after the decisive vote! If Bischoff had made clear what had happened on the congress’s first day his standing could have helped defeat the right wing. But his silence helped the right secure a victory and then his resignation helped give them a comfortable majority on the new WASG executive.

Lafontaine really had very few arguments apart from “left unity”. He and his supporters demanded that the Berlin WASG accept national decisions. However the Berlin L.PDS ignores the national policies of both the L.PDS and WASG by forcing unemployed to take the so-called “one euro jobs”. Now in Berlin over 30,000 unemployed only receive state benefit if they agree to work as cheap labour for the ’bonus’ payment of one euro per hour worked.

Lafontaine stated that tactics in regional elections had to be decided nationally, but that decisions on participating in regional coalitions had to be made locally. Clearly the reason was he wanted to allow the Berlin L.PDS to continue its coalition with the SPD.

Future of the party?

The WASG congress’s decisions threaten the future of the party. It is clear that the WASG right wing are not really interested in building a mass membership party and, in their drive for unity on any basis with the L.PDS, are prepared to accept participating in governments that carry out social cuts. It seems likely that there will now be a drive to unify the parties earlier than the original 2007 target and that possibly the leadership will attempt to exclude from the new party at least some of their opponents. On such a basis the medium term future of such a party is open to question.

Immediately after the WASG congress some members have mistakenly left the party. In Berlin the SAV will argue that the WASG should maintain its course of striving to present a principled anti-cuts list in the elections. They are accused of being splitters and not prepared to discuss, yet the Berlin L.PDS refused to even take up offer to discuss the election which Berlin WASG made to them in April.

The last year has shown both in actual and opinion polls the huge potential there is in Germany for a party opposing the ruling class’s onslaught on living standards. The WASG began to organise and give direction to this opposition, but it was only the first steps. If a fusion between the WASG and L.PDS creates a party that implements cuts when in government and whose leaders resort to threats of splitting in order to get their way, then this will not be a step towards the principled campaigning party that German working people need.

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May 2006