Germany: Berlin election campaign enters “hot phase”

Berlin WASG possibility of getting elected to regional parliament

"I am not interested in dealing with her," says Oskar Lafontaine, one of the most prominent national leaders of the WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice) and former chair of the Social Democratic Party. SPD. The person Lafontaine is referring to is Lucy Redler, SAV member (Socialist Alternative, the German affiliate to the CWI) and number one candidate on the WASG slate for the 17 September, Berlin regional state elections.

While Oskar Lafontaine recently adopted left wing rhetoric, often says he is a socialist, correctly demands that the law is changed to allow trade unions in Germany to call general strikes, and makes an anti-privatisation stand, at the same time he opposes the independent candidacy of the WASG in Berlin. He is now actively campaigning for a vote for the LeftParty.PDS (L.PDS), and openly defends its participation in the Berlin City government over the last five years. "It provides us with the possibility of conducting an even better policy for the Berlin people," said Lafontaine, when speaking at the LeftParty.PDS´s opening rally in Berlin-Pankow. The policy he is talking about involves the privatisation of 120,000 council flats, up to 12% wage cuts in the public sector, and the introduction of 32,000 so-called "one euro jobs", which long term unemployed people are forced to accept if they want to keep their state benefits [for more background information, see previous articles on].

The only credible alternative to the "more of the same" parties

Oskar Lafontaine, and others within the WASG opposed to this independent candidature, are worried about the possible entry of the Berlin WASG into the city parliament, as it would be seen nationally seen as a victory for the most determined anti-cuts fighters. It would represent a big success for the left wing within, and outside, the WASG, that has a different approach and understanding of how the parliament can be used to defend the interests of working class people. Furthermore Lafontaine is striving to complete a merger between the WASG and L.PDS by the middle of next year and sees the Berlin WASG’s political stand as an obstacle.

The Berlin WASG is not against a merger on principle but questions this fusion’s political basis. The WASG in Berlin has made it crystal clear that they will not take part in any government that carries out privatisations and social cuts, a founding principle of the WASG nationally. The Berlin WASG understands its role in parliament, in the main, is to initiate and support workers, the unemployed and the youth in struggle.

The Berlin WASG wants to use its positions to give a voice to those who no longer have a voice in parliament. This approach involves the active participation and mobilisation of the majority of the population against redundancies, company closures, wage and social cuts. A WASG group in the Berlin regional parliament would serve as a magnifying glass for the anti-social policies of all parties currently represented in the parliament. That is also why trade union activists, and members of tenants’ associations and social movements, are standing as candidates on the WASG list.

This is not the kind of political approach envisaged by Oskar Lafontaine and others. They are not putting forward an alternative to the policy of the so-called "lesser evil" but defend the cuts that have taken place under the SPD/L.PDS coalition government in Berlin, by arguing that it would have been "worse" under any other government. This is actually an argument against fighting the attacks of the governments and bosses through mass mobilisation and struggle. In reality it means not struggling against but accepting, possibly reluctantly, cuts in living standards if they are carried out by coalitions including the L.PDS. The Berlin WASG stands for serious struggles that try to stop attacks and this is why its attempts to reach agreement on a joint election list with the Berlin L.PDS failed.

In the meantime, it is clearer than ever, that all the L.PDS has on offer for the working class in Berlin is more of the same. Their election campaign posters read like a defensive justification of their role in the Senate, the city’s government. The L.PDS claims there will be no further privatisations. But this is shown to be a lie already. In the midst of the election campaign, "der tagesspiegel", an authorative Berlin newspaper, revealed that, if re-elected, the Senate plans to sell off another 15,000 council flats. WASG and SAV members who live in the threatened flats immediately started a campaign against this sell-off.

Another example of the L.PDS’s pro-market policies in Berlin is the fact that this so-called "red-red" Senate is ready to pass a law, after the 17 September elections, which will allow shops to open late and on Sundays. If they do so, Berlin would be only the second regional state, after the conservative-run regional state of North Rhine Westphalia, which would allow such flexible opening hours.

In an election period, everyone expects the established parties to make promises which they will not keep. The SPD’s promise to introduce free child care for the first two years at kindergarten is one of those promises. However, if it was not so sad and bitter, one could laugh about the response of the L.PDS to the SPD’s claims. Their ‘financial expert’ calls the SPD kindergarten promise "adventurous" and asks where the money to pay for this child care will come from. The L.PDS financial adviser complains that this is not a serious and thought through plan. All of this obviously works in favour of the WASG.

WASG gets warm response

Initially, those opposed to the Berlin WASG standing independently tried to be dismissive about its candidacy. This is true of those opponents within the WASG, both nationally, and in Berlin, as well as of the L.PDS leadership in Berlin. However, this attitude has changed in the course of the election campaign.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. According to some of the latest opinion polls, the WASG stands between 3% and 5%. The figure of 5% is the minimum needed to get elected to the Berlin City parliament.

During the campaign, two well known and respected L.PDS members, the former GDR ambassador to Yugoslavia and his wife, published a letter in which they stated that even the thought of voting for Harald Wolf (the L.PDS number one candidate and the current Senator for the economy) in these elections would make them feel sick. They go on to say that they are going to give their vote to the WASG this time. Obviously, this struck a chord with some of the more critical L.PDS members, who otherwise do not dare to speak out. There are now an increasing number of L.PDS members approaching WASG activists, wishing them luck and saying they are going to vote for the Berlin WASG. In opinion polls, the L.PDS is now stuck at around 16%, way down on the 22.6% it won in the last Berlin elections, when it was an opposition party.

Interestingly, Lafontaine said, during a press conference initiated by opponents of the WASG´s standing independently, and called under the name "initiative for a new left", reportedly explained, "On points of programme, he has a lot in common with the Berlin WASG but that his decision to support the L.PDS was of strategic and tactical nature." Lafontaine’s main justification for this was that the current L.PDS/SPD coalition was the ‘least bad option’ and that, if the WASG was elected, it would result in a more neo-liberal coalition. Clearly he was not even thinking of how to build a movement that could actually defeat the attacks on working people.

However, due to the opinion polls, and the general mood in the city, it seems that Lafontaine has chosen not to go onto an outright attack against the Berlin WASG. But again, and more vigorously than in the past, he defends the L.PDS’s role in government over the last five years. Christine Buchholz, a member of Linksruck (the German equivalent of the British SWP) and a member of the WASG NEC, sat in silence next to Lafontaine on the platform of this "initiative for a new left". With regard to Lafontaine’s position, a journalist from one of Berlin’s daily newspapers approached WASG and SAV members, who were observers at the press conference, and said, "Can you explain this to me? I can understand your position but I find it difficult to understand his".

Fight for every vote!

During our election campaign, on street stalls, and when knocking on doors, distributing leaflets outside work places and dole offices, WASG activists and members increasingly hear people say, "I am definitely going to vote for you. You are different and you care about us normal people." People are willing to take our literature material and some volunteer to leaflet their estates for the Berlin WASG campaign. They like the fact the WASG is not a party of big business and, therefore, not of big money, either. They support the idea that the top Berlin WASG candidate, Lucy Redler, will not accept any privileges if elected as a Berlin MP.

Still, of course, there are people who have not yet heard of the WASG before and those who raise questions as to whether we will ‘deliver’ or not. Some express a general disgust with all politicians and parties. Significantly, support for Federal Chancellor Merkel’s CDU is falling; currently it stands at 21%, less than the CDU got in Berlin’s last elections, in 2001.

The WASG will produce a special leaflet, which will try to reach out to the many that have lost confidence in all parties and are not thinking of voting. According to some research institutes, the numbers non voting could be close to 50% of the electorate.

During this election campaign, the Berlin WASG is also able to prove in action that they are defending the interests of the working class and youth in the city.

WASG members, as well as SAV members and others, are currently involved in setting up a solidarity committee for workers at Bosch Siemens Hausgeräte, one of Berlin’s few remaining industrial workplace, which is threatened with closure. A WASG Berlin solidarity message on this issue was warmly received. One of the regional committee members from the Berlin WASG has been a senior shop steward at Bosch Siemens Hausgeräte for 20 years and has good relations with the workers.

The WASG also actively supports hospital workers at the biggest university hospital, the Charité, who are fighting for a wage bargaining agreement which has been denied to them by the so-called "red-red" Senate for two years. A warning strike of nurses working in the operation theatres was successful and caused substantial financial damage. It is possible that further industrial action will take place before Berlin’s election day.

There is a lot to do in Germany’s poverty-struck capital. There is a real possibility of a genuine alternative to enter the regional state parliament, in September. This could then act as a focal point of opposition to cuts, on a national scale. A strong WASG in Berlin, with a determined parliamentary group, can also have an influence on the general development of a new left in Germany.

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August 2006