Main parties, few differences; DIE LINKE must support struggles of working class and fight for a socialist future
General elections in Germany take place on 22 September. Most opinion polls see a continuation of the present coalition of the conservative parties CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and CSU (Christian Social Union in Bavaria) and the liberal party, the FDP. But it is not ruled out that chancellor Angela Merkel will have to prepare for a different coalition partner, as the liberals could fall under the five percent threshold necessary for any party to get into the Bundestag (German parliament).
This could be the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the only TV duel between Merkel and SPD top candidate, Peer Steinbrück, they fired cotton wool balls at each other and could hardly hide the fact that they do not really disagree in fundamental questions. Ironically the sharpest attack against Merkel by the SPD consists of an indignant rejection of Merkel’s statement the SPD would be unreliable in regard to European politics. “This is not true”, declared by social democratic spokespersons – “we have voted for all the bank-rescue packages Merkel put forward in parliament!” From 2005 to 2009 both parties governed together in a grand coalition – with Peer Steinbrück being Merkel’s finance minister.
However the SPD and also the Green Party try to present themselves more “left-wing” putting forward demands for a higher taxation of the rich, the introduction of a minimum wage and restrictions to subcontracted labour. But this does not help them much with the electorate – as many people still remember that the last “red-green coalition” introduced the harshest social cuts programme (Agenda 2010) in the history of the country and have experience of social democratic and green administrations in federal states and councils implementing cuts, privatisations etc.
For some time, the SPD has stood at around 25 percent in polls with the Green Party getting between 11 and 13 percent. Even though there have been some small recent shifts, they have no chance of a majority against Merkel. Only together with DIE LINKE (Left Party), which stands now between 8-10 percent in polls, there might be such a possibility. But the SPD and Greens have both ruled out a coalition with what they call an unreliable party because of DIE LINKE’s opposition to German troops being sent abroad and its rejection of bank-rescue funds and the European fiscal pact.
Opinion polls also see the two newcomer parties – Pirate Party and Alternative for Germany (AfD) – below the five percent barrier. The Pirates had some spectacular successes in regional elections in 2011 and 2012 mobilising protest votes. But they completely lost their momentum after it became clear to many voters that they do not really have a consistent programme and policy. AfD was only formed this year as a conservative and pro-capitalist Anti-Euro party. They have become a factor on the political landscape but do not get more than 4 percent in polls, so far. This mainly reflects the dominant attitude amongst German capitalists and the middle class that Germany’s economy is gaining from the existence of the euro despite the crisis and the rescue packages for Greece and other countries. However it is not ruled out that the AfD will get over 5 percent. It has succeeded in building a nation-wide party structure and has developed quite clever propaganda. If this happens, it would most certainly lead to a grand coalition or, more unlikely but not ruled out, the first coalition of CDU/CSU and the Green Party on a national scale.
All in all, Germany sees one of the most boring election campaigns, with little polarisation. There is no “mood for change” and also no major class struggle or mass social movements. Everyone expects Merkel to keep her position as Chancellor and she tries everything not to provoke unrest before election day. Amongst other things, she forced a delay on the debate about the future for Greece on the EU until after election day.
The background to this is a political and economic situation which gives the impression of stability. Comparing Germany with other European countries, it has overcome the great recession better with its GDP having reached pre-crisis level, a declining mass unemployment (at least in official figures) and an almost zero budget deficit in 2012 (while state debt has risen to 81.9 percent). The Merkel government even implemented some minor social reforms in the beginning of 2013, like the abolition of the hated 10 Euro fee for the first visit to a doctor, in any quarter of the year.
Many Germans have the feeling that they luckily avoided the negative effects of the euro crisis and many would give credit for this to Merkel’s seemingly strong policy for “German interests” on a European scale. She was able to create a feeling of “we’re all in the same boat” in parts of the population – supported in this by the social democratic and green so-called opposition and the tops of the trade unions.
Given this general situation, there have been hardly any bigger social movements or class struggles in the recent period. The mass movement against nuclear energy which erupted after the Fukushima catastrophe quickly forced the Merkel government to retreat and declare an exit out of nuclear energy over a number of years. This also reflects the government’s ability to avoid bigger social polarisations. The so called Blockupy protests in 2012 and 2013 against the austerity and bank-rescue programmes in Europe, which mobilised around 20,000 each year but stayed limited to left-wing and trade union activists. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the far right parties are much weaker, although the recent growth of small neo-fascist groups is a warning that the extreme right could revive in a time of crisis.
Under the surface
But looking under the surface, the reality of life for German workers looks different. Social polarisation is growing and there is a basic dissatisfaction with the country’s situation. Germany has become a country of working poor. More than 20 percent of workers are on an hourly wage of under 10.36 euro. Eight million are on less than 7 euro and 1.4 million get less than 5 euro per hour. While there are officially 2.25 million unemployed, 5.21 million receive some kind of unemployment benefit. Real wages have fallen since 2000, pressure at work has grown, different forms of subcontracted labour have been expanded by the capitalists leading to a situation of insecurity and low wages. House prices in bigger cities have massively gone up, leading to increasing rents with a growing number of cases where working class tenants are pushed out of inner city areas. This year in Berlin an older and disabled woman was forcefully evicted from her flat and died a few days later. Many local councils face desperate financial situations and are implementing cuts in services and/or increases in fees for services.
Economic growth is low since the end of 2011 and the car industry especially faces crisis. For the first time since the Second World War, a car factory in west Germany will be closed this year – the Opel plant in Bochum where workers in early September took wildcat strike action during a night shift in protest against the arrogant behaviour of the bosses, but also in defiance of their own national trade union leadership. The German economy is highly dependent on exports. This dependency has even grown since the “big recession” of 2009, now standing at 50 percent of GDP. The economic slowdown in the so called emerging markets and the crisis in Europe hang like the sword of Damocles over the German economy. Therefore it is just a question of time before the German working class will again be faced with attacks, growing unemployment, job losses and factory closures. The plans for this are already in the cupboards of the bosses’ associations and pro-capitalist ministers are demanding more privatisations, a worsening of legal protection against dismissals, restrictions in the right to take strike action, further flexibilisation of the labour market etc.
Given all this, it is no surprise that, in reality, there is no active support for Merkel, let alone any enthusiasm. Certainly there is amongst many people a relief that the euro crisis has not hit Germany (yet) but the fundamental mood amongst many workers and youth is marked by a deep alienation from all state institutions and traditional political parties. This is reflected in continuously declining turnouts at elections. In Europe, apart from Portugal, this decline has been the biggest in Germany in the last 30 years. A recent survey amongst non-voters revealed that, above average, they come from poor working class layers and also that they are not de-politicised as it is often claimed but just fed up with official politics. One thing is certain: the next government may represent a majority of voters (and even this is not certain given the undemocratic five percent threshold) but certainly not the majority of the population.
While there have not been mass struggles there has been an increase in industrial disputes. These often take place in smaller workplaces or industries where low wages are paid or collective bargaining contracts do not exist. Today only 61 percent of workers in Germany are covered by collective contracts. In the low pay sectors, a new “sub-proletariat” has developed, in which a process of organisation and fight back has begun.
There have been a number of long and bitter disputes. At the moment, German workers at Amazon fight for collective contracts through regular strike days. In the retail sector, workers have taken strike action both for a one euro per hour increase in pay and against the bosses’ association’s attempt to worsen working conditions. But also teachers in Berlin and other areas have taken strike action for equal pay. Workers on the river locks are in the middle of a campaign of rolling strike action against the danger of job losses after a re-organisation of the locks.
In a model dispute, the trade union branch at the biggest European university hospital group – the Berlin Charité – is fighting for a collective contract that increases staffing levels and health safety. SAV (CWI Germany) members in that trade union branch and the solidarity campaign play an important role in developing a fighting strategy and organising wider support for this struggle. A success of this struggle can have wider effects with other workforces possibly following this example.
One problem is that these different struggles largely remain isolated and are not connected by the trade union leadership. The trade union leaders even plan to renew a collective contract for subcontracted workers, despite the fact that this undermines the legal equal pay decree which would force employers who use subcontracted labour to pay the same wage as they pay to the core workforce. However this has led to a broad opposition campaign within the unions, especially the public and service sector trade union ver.di where recently a new left-wing network of trade union full timers has been formed.
DIE LINKE is the only political force which does not belong to a de facto cartel of different pro-capitalist parties that, despite what they say to voters, represent the interest of the banks and corporations. The party stands between 8 and 10 percent in opinion polls (it had reached 11.9 percent in the last general elections in 2009). DIE LINKE gives some expression of the interests of ordinary people and is the only party in the Bundestag which voted against the fiscal pact and bank-rescue funds. It supports fighting workers, for example in the retail sector, the Charité hospital and the locks strikes. On its election posters, DIE LINKE demands a re-distribution of wealth, a minimum wage of 10 euros per hour, a minimum social benefit of 1,050 euros, the implementation of a wealth tax and an end to the “two-class-health-system”.
Therefore socialists have to support the party in these elections. It is simple: the stronger DIE LINKE becomes the better are the conditions for class struggles and social movements. The weaker DIE LINKE becomes the higher will be the confidence of the capitalists and their parties to go for further attacks on the masses. SAV members are active in DIE LINKE and argue for a clear anti-capitalist outlook and a socialist programme.
But DIE LINKE is very heterogeneous and dominated by parliamentary factions on local, regional and national level, which largely stand for a parliamentary orientation of the party and working within capitalism. Inner party conflicts, which were fought by the right-wing in the bourgeois media, led to a sharp decline in public support in the run-up to the party congress in June 2012. At that time, in some polls, the party fell below the five percent barrier. The attempt of the right-wing to gain overall control of the party was narrowly defeated and a new leadership was elected, with the left-wing trade unionist Bernd Riexinger one of two party chairpersons. Since then, there has been a certain stabilisation of the party and a growth in opinion polls. However DIE LINKE is still seen by many as belonging to the established party system and it has not sunk deep enough roots in social movements, local communities and trade union struggles. This is based on experiences with DIE LINKE (and one of its predecessors, the PDS) in local and regional government coalitions with the social democrats, where the party betrayed its own principles and participated in carrying out privatisations and cuts etc.
This is reinforced in the present election campaign by different LINKE leaders stating their wish to join a coalition government with the SPD and the Greens. The official party position is to put forward certain conditions for DIE LINKE’s preparedness to join a coalition. These include: no privatisation of public services, no participation of the German army in combat in foreign countries, no restrictions of public services and a government policy which improves the living conditions for the population.
But in public statements some LINKE leaders, especially the chairman of the parliamentary group Gregor Gysi, put forward fewer conditions. While it is almost ruled out that the SPD and Greens would be prepared to form a coalition, at this stage, with DIE LINKE, the repeated statements of party leaders in this direction can only be interpreted as an attempt to push the party further to the right, in preparation for an attempt to form such a coalition at the next elections.
While obviously big parts of the population would not reject such an idea out of principle, DIE LINKE creates the impression that it is “one party amongst the others” orientated towards parliamentarism and government participation within the current system. With such a profile, it is impossible to mobilise the growing layer of non-voters who are fed up with official parliamentary politics, amongst whom the number of those considering themselves to stand on the left is three times bigger than in the general population!
Government coalitions of pro-capitalist parties, which govern within the framework of capitalism, mean that any left party taking part in that coalition will participate in the administration of the system – a system such parties often pledge to fight! This is the experience from the first participation of the French socialists at the beginning of the 20th century up to the support of the Italian Rifondazione Comunista for different Prodi governments at the end of the last, and beginning of this, century. The net result is a shift to the right in these parties and, when a capitalist crisis strikes, a loss of support amongst the working class, as ordinary people find themselves in conflict with such governments. Therefore any party which stands for working class people and socialist ideas should only join a government if this is a means to actually implement socialist policies and use the governmental position in the fight against the capitalist system. This is what Syriza and the Greek left could do if they win the next elections and act on the basis of a clear socialist programme.
Therefore SAV members argue that DIE LINKE should clearly state that it is only prepared to join a government which would implement policies in the interest of the working masses and that this is not possible with the pro-capitalist SPD and Greens. This often is criticised as an “irresponsible and fundamentalist-oppositionist” position which would lead to a continuation of the Merkel chancellorship. To counter this, DIE LINKE could explain that it is prepared to help prevent the re-election of Merkel even, if necessary, by voting for a SPD chancellor in parliament and give the SPD and Greens the opportunity to form a minority government. It could then explain that it will vote for any progressive legislation, on a case by case basis, but is not prepared to sign any coalition or toleration agreement with which it would bind DIE LINKE to a government whose leaders firmly support capitalism.
The calm of this election campaign should not deceive anyone. The very fact that the exact outcome is still very uncertain reflects the unease in society. The likelihood is that fairly soon new economic storms will develop, on a world scale and/or in the euro-zone. Such developments would threaten Germany’s export dependent economy and bring the surface much of the underlying dissatisfaction in the country, undermining Merkel’s “safe hands” popularity. If the onset of an economic crisis is delayed then it is likely that there will be increased demands for higher wages and improved services.
Events after the election will pose a big test for DIE LINKE of whether it can build its support and play a part in renewing the workers’ movement on socialist lines. The most important point is that the party should concentrate on initiating and supporting struggles and movements against the day-to-day problems of the working class and connect these to the fight for a socialist future. On this basis, it could be built into a socialist mass party. Unfortunately the balance of forces inside the party might shift to the right at next year’s party congress. The left in the party has to organise and coordinate to struggle to prevent such a development. SAV members therefore participate in the broader left current Anticapitalist Left (AKL) and call for all the left currents to work together to build a party that can start to channel the increasing dissatisfaction in a socialist direction.