Germany: Governing parties’ election losses

New right wing government and success for the Left Party

The general election in Germany has seen the end of the conservative (Christian Democratic Union – CDU)/Social Democrat Party (SPD) “grand” coalition, and opened the way for a conservative/liberal, CDU/CSU (Christian Social Union) and FDP (Free Democratic Party), right-wing government coalition, that will fundamentally act against the working class.

Both outgoing government parties lost votes and, given the drop in the turn-out to 70.8%, from 77.7% in 2005, neither the new coalition, nor a continuation of the grand coalition, would have the support of majority of the population.

This election result is something of a paradox: the grand coalition government was kicked out of office for right-wing, anti-worker policies, which will be continued and intensified by the new government.

The SPD, which ruled Germany together with the Greens for seven years before the grand coalition came into office in 2005, suffered massive losses. The SPD “first” (constituency), vote crashed from 18,129,000 to 12,077,000, while its “second” (party list) vote, which is the decisive vote in determining the make-up of parliament, fell by a similar number, leaving it with 23%. This is over 11% lower than four years ago and the SPD’s worst result since the end of the second world war. Since 1998, the SPD’s party list vote has fallen by over half, from 20,178,800 (40.9%) in 1998, to 9,988,800 (23%) now. This is a disaster for the SPD, a former mass workers’ party, which had become the motor force of neo-liberal reforms in Germany.

Angela Merkel’s CDU, the SPD’s partner in government, did not do much better. The CDU’s “first” vote fell from 15,390,900 to 13,852,700 while its “second” vote fell from 13,136,700 to 11,824,800. Large numbers of its first voters gave their second vote to the “liberal” FDP. Likewise, the votes for the CDU’s Bavarian ally, the CSU, also fell. The combined CDU/CSU “first” vote fell from 19,280,900 to 17,043,700 and their second vote from 16,631,000 to 14,655,000.

The reason the SPD lost more heavily than the CDU and CSU lies in the fact that it had been in government for longer. Both parties are seen as responsible for the same bad policies but given that it is “social democratic” on paper, the SPD has provoked bigger popular dissatisfaction.

The main winner of this election is the “liberal” FDP, which made a leap from 9.8% to 14.6%, mainly winning votes from the CDU. Nearly half the FDP’s “party list” vote came from voters who gave their constituency vote to the CDU/CSU. The FDP’s gains seem absurd, as their ultra free-market policies would clearly deepen the present economic crisis, but in the election they heavily emphasised the need to cut taxes. Even the Financial Times Deutschland (FTD) would not call for a vote for the FDP, as the party does not support enough regulation of the financial markets, as the FTD put it.

A key reason for this result however, is that a pact was made between the employers and the government to try to limit the economic crisis’ impact until the voting was over. In return for an extension of the government-backed short-time working scheme, the bosses promised to postpone mass sackings until after the elections, i.e. today! This led to a situation where the real social effects of the world economic crisis were cushioned and consequently, sharp social polarisation and class struggles which would have had an effect on the political arena have not yet developed.

Gains for the Left Party

The second biggest winner was the Left Party, which will now be the fourth biggest party in parliament. Compared with 2005, when it was still an alliance between the PDS (former ruling party in Stalinist East Germany) and the WASG (Alliance for Work and Social Justice), the Left Party’s party “list vote” rose from 4,118,200 to 5,153,900, 11.9%, up by 3.2%. This is surely an important success, but falls short of the full potential which exists for the party. In some opinion polls before the election, the Left Party stood at 14%. In the simultaneous election for the federal state parliament in the East German state of Brandenburg, the Left Party’s share of the vote did not even go up! While in the general election, the Left Party gained about 780,000 votes from former SPD voters, millions more could have been won from the former SPD voters who did not participate at all in this election. In comparison with the 2005 elections, around 1,640,000 former SPD voters abstained this time.

This can partially be explained by the fact that in an opinion poll on the credibility of the parties, the Left Party only stood at third place, behind the liberals and the Greens! Partly, this is because of the experience of the Left Party carrying out social cuts and privatisations after they had joined regional governments in Berlin and Mecklenburg. But the main reason was that, despite it having a better election campaign than previous ones, focussing much more on economic and welfare issues, the Left Party has not developed a consistently strong and clear profile, since the outbreak of the world economic crisis.

Now with the social democrats, Greens and Left Party in opposition, there is the danger that the Left Party leadership will try to move closer to a now ‘oppositionist’ SPD to prepare a government coalition for the future. On the contrary, what is needed is a combative, socialist mass workers’ party, which concentrates on struggles taking place outside parliament and on propagating the idea of socialist change in society. With more probable participation of the Left Party in government in some federal states, it is possible that the leadership will throw overboard some essential aspects of its programme. Already in the last weeks, the Party leaders have adopted a new tone in regard to the party’s demand for the immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. Now it has been said that this is not meant literally and that a withdrawal would have to be discussed with Germany’s ‘partners’ in Afghanistan – the other imperialist armies and the corrupt and undemocratic Karzai government – and could take some time. This is an ‘exit strategy’ position which the SPD can agree to.

The new government will sooner or later be forced to launch an avalanche of attacks on the working class, unemployed, pensioners and young people. Therefore, the decisive task for the trade unions, the Left Party and social movements is to prepare for a mass fight back. Given this background, it is scandalous that the DGB trade union federation’s chair, Michael Sommer, said in an interview on election night that the unions are prepared to work with the new government, instead of calling on his members to prepare for hard-fought battles. These battles will come, probably sooner rather than later. They will take place both on the industrial level – against sackings and factory closures – and on the political arena, against further social cuts, a possible increase in VAT and similar measures. This election opens up a more unstable period in German society. The new right-wing government does not reflect a decisive rightward shift in society. The election results show growing dissatisfaction, volatility and, to some extent, a political polarisation. The consequences of this, and new opportunities for socialist ideas, will be revealed when the new government’s attempts to make the working class, and sections of the middle class, pay for the crisis.

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September 2009