Germany: Election looms, with dissatisfaction, polarisation under the surface

Four months before the general election takes place in Germany, Chancellor Merkel appears to have a safe race and might be in a position of having options as to who she chooses to be her coalition partner.

The hated ‘liberal’ Free Democratic Party (FDP) party, which was kicked out of parliament in the last elections, is likely to make a comeback, gaining up to ten percent in opinion polls. Just a few months ago it looked as if the Social Democrat Party SPD could catch up with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) after they had nominated Martin Schulz, the former president of the European parliament, as their new chairman and top candidate. But only after two months, the SPD began slide again polls.

Germany was hit hard by the world recession in 2008/09 but came out of it as a “crisis winner” by de-facto exporting the consequences of the economic crisis to other European countries. This was done through a low wage policy, aggressive competition and the use of Germany’s political and economic power to impose austerity on the rest of Europe.

While this led to growing unemployment and massive cuts in social services etc. in many other EU countries, Germany saw record employment, an increase in real wages, for some working class people, and some (very limited) social reforms, like the introduction of a (much too low) minimum wage of at first 8.50 euro and now 8.84 euro per hour.

This does not mean that the social situation for the majority of workers in Germany has improved or that it is good. On the contrary, Germany has one of the biggest low wage sectors in Europe, pressure at work has grown dramatically for many workers and rents have risen dramatically in the bigger cities. The slashing of the welfare state, which began in many other EU countries in the aftermath of the 2008/9 recession, was introduced in Germany in 2004 by the then SPD/Green coalition under the name of “Agenda 2010”.

However currently popular consciousness is not determined by this but more by the fact that Germany seems to be surrounded by countries with growing crises, instability and a world where war and terror dominates and people like Trump or Marine Le Pen get stronger. For many Germans, the relative stability at home seems to be something which should be defended and they regard chancellor Merkel as a guarantor of this stability.

This has been the main factor for the conservative CDU winning three regional elections this year and riding high in the opinion polls ahead of September’s general election. But this is only one side of the coin.

Underlying volatility

Other developments show the underlying volatility of the situation. One is the social democratic SPD going up and down in opinion polls. In January, the party launched a media coup that seemed to very clever. The then party chairman, Siegmar Gabriel, stepped down and Martin Schulz was nominated as party chairman and lead candidate for the general elections. Schulz was the president of the European parliament for many years. While a defender of the current grand coalition, Agenda 2010, and of the EU elite’s blackmailing of Greece, and a millionaire himself, Schulz was presented as an “outsider”. This was based upon his not being part of the German government, and the fact that he had not, until then, played a decisive role in the SPD leadership. Schulz also seemingly defended the rights of the European Parliament against national governments and the EU commission.

Furthermore Schultz promised to put “social justice” back on the agenda and at the heart of his election campaign. Overnight the SPD went up almost ten percentage points in opinion polls (from a historical low). More than 10,000 joined the party and there was a media-orchestrated enthusiasm for Schulz. From January to March, it was widely discussed whether the SPD could become the strongest party and if a “red-red-green” coalition government of the SPD, DIE LINKE (Left Party) and the Greens was a realistic option. This reflected the feeling amongst broad layers of society that there is no social justice in Germany and that politics is done in the interest of a rich minority. But Schulz behaved like a football player before a penalty who feints left and then … does not shoot at all.

After some weeks, it became clearer that his talk about social justice was just empty words without any concrete policy promises. After the regional elections in the Saarland, in March, which saw the SPD beaten by a strengthened CDU, Schulz made clear that he is not planning a “red-red-green” coalition but even expressed his openness for a coalition with the liberal FDP – the “small party of big business”. What started off as a movement for change became old wine in new wine bottles. The result is that those who want change do not see this coming through the SPD and those who think that confronted with dangers of war, crisis and right-wing populism the status quo should be defended are opting for Merkel. Many people who do not participate in elections anymore feel vindicated that the established parties and politicians do not act in their interests.

Of course the threat of right-wing populism has not gone. The relatively new right-wing populist party ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), entered 13 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments in recent last years. While the AfD’s support seems to have fallen, it still stands between seven and nine percent in national opinion polls and will most likely enter the Bundestag (national parliament) in September. But the dynamic which carried the AfD through the time of the so-called “refugee crisis”, from 2015 to 2016, is gone. And while last year the increased turnout in elections mainly benefitted the AfD this year many former non-voters are obviously going to the polling stations to stop the right populists.

The AfD is going through serious internal frictions, with one wing openly far right, including ideological connections to neo-fascism. Even a majority of AfD voters say that the party should be less open to the extreme right wing. But the two wings need each other and a truce was made at the last April’s AfD party congress.

Resisting the AfD will remain an important priority for the Left. But these developments underline the SAV view that there has not been a simple shift to the right in society. Actually, there had been a polarisation, which was reflected in mass solidarity with the refugees after 2015, with mass demonstrations against TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and against racism and the AfD. This polarisation receded this year, with a move electorally to the “centre”, around Merkel.

Merkel successfully presents herself as a defender of “German interests” against, for example, Trump, while also standing for a sober and humane policy on refugees. This gains some support as many workers unfortunately do not understand that for Merkel and co. “German interests” mean the interest of German capitalism, not the welfare of workers and the wider population. Partially this response is due to the trade union leaders, who defended both “social partnership” with, and the export-based economic policy of, the capitalist class. In truth, the Merkel government hardened asylum legislation, is responsible for inhumane deportations, even of schoolchildren to Afghanistan, and supports dictatorships like Saudi Arabia.


Brexit and the crisis of the European Union are also seen by many as putting economic stability for Germany into danger. At the same time, there are many people who are very critical of the EU and its institutions. Merkel’s reaction to Brexit, together with Macron and others, in pushing for stronger EU integration, is presented as a move against nationalism and instability. It is, in reality, driven by the economic interests of German capitalism and will lead to the further militarisation of the EU. It may well be a preparation for the creation of a “core EU” of Germany, France, the former informal “Deutschmark zone” (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria) and some Eastern European states (Poland, Czech Republic). This can be in preparation for some countries like Italy, Spain or Portugal, trying to leave the eurozone following the Brexit example, or as in case of the Greece, new social and political eruptions taking place.

In this situation, DIE LINKE (the Left Party) currently stands between six and ten percent in recent opinion polls (it gained 8.6% in 2013). The party lost votes in regional elections, in eastern Germany, where it traditionally a stronger base but is seen as an establishment party that is part of regional government coalitions in three eastern federal states. It increased its votes in the regional elections in the western states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine Westphalia, from a low starting point, and in both cases failing to get over the five percent threshold to get into the regional parliaments. These results do show however that the party can increase its vote on the basis of a more left-wing profile.

DIE LINKE is still, in reality, two parties in one, with one wing adopting a parliamentary orientation with the aim to join pro-capitalist governments together with the SPD and Greens and another wing made up of many left-reformist and anti-capitalist minded people. As long as the party leadership, in one way or the another, keeps on declaring its preparedness to enter coalitions with SPD and Greens, the party will be seen by many as just the left wing of the Establishment and not as a combative force defending and fighting for the rights of workers, unemployed and oppressed. This is reinforced by the policy of DIE LINKE in the regional governments it is part of.

Just recently the party voted against legislation in the Bundestag which included preparation for privatising motorways. But in the German parliament’s upper house, made up of representatives from federal state governments, LINKE members voted in favour of it as the governments put this measure into a law that also gave the federate states a bigger share of the national tax income. Thus three regional governments that the LINKE participates in all voted in favour of this package in the Bundesrat and therefore against the LINKE’s principled opposition against privatisation. The LINKE prime minister of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, justified this by speaking of “solidarity between the federal states” and expressing his attitude that in government DIE LINKE is not a representation for working people but “for all”.

This voting behaviour was criticised and rejected by the national committee of the party and by its national congress, which took place in June. At the congress an election manifesto was voted upon which is a step to the left in comparison to the 2013 manifesto. Given the fact that a coalition with SPD and Greens is de-facto ruled out on a national level, at the moment, given the opinion poll ratings of the three parties and the SPD ruling out such a coalition, some in the LINKE leadership like the parliamentary leader, Sahra Wagenknecht, have set a more radical and oppositionist tone. Others, like the co-chairwoman Katja Kipping, are trying to put pressure on the SPD to change its stance.

Left Party conference

SAV members participated in the party congress, together with others on the left of the party, demanding clearer positions against participation in pro-capitalist governments and an anti-capitalist and socialist outlook for the party. Amongst the over 400 delegates and other visitors, SAV supporters sold 85 papers and literature (worth 500 Euro) at the stall of our new publishing house, ‘Manifest’.

The election campaign is just about to start and SAV members will campaign for a vote for DIE LINKE, trying to connect the election campaign with local and trade union struggles and with the struggle against the far right. On the industrial and trade union fronts, there are not many disputes at the moment. However the ongoing struggle for more staff in hospitals is very important and we will raise this issue as a priority in our election campaign activities. After a successful struggle by workers at the Charité hospital in Berlin (the largest hospital group in Europe and where SAV members play a leading role in the trade union branch and in the important solidarity committee) for a collective bargaining agreement on minimum standards for staffing and safety regulations, this was followed up hospital workers and trade union branches around the country. This put pressure on the ver.di trade union leadership to act. Strikes have taken place in hospitals in the Saarland and warning strikes are planned in twenty hospitals for September. At the same time, the ver.di leadership is lacking a clear and combative strategy. At a recent conference of hospital trade union activists, SAV members got a good response with their proposals to go for more coordinated action in this struggle. The trade union branch at the Charité hospital is preparing for new strike action because the employer is not fulfilling the regulations which were agreed upon in the collective bargaining contract one year ago.

Germany sees a lower level of social crisis and polarisation than other countries, with a dominant mood in society for stability in an unstable world. This is a temporary phenomenon which will change once the economic situation changes – something which will certainly happen given the strong export dependency of the German economy. At the same time, there is unrest and dissatisfaction under the surface, which could be utilised by the Left Party and the trade unions. However, baring sudden developments, September’s general elections will most likely see a victory for the conservative CDU/CSU and even a change in the coalition to a CDU/CSU-FDP-Green coalition is a possibility. It is not ruled out that a new government will quickly go for new economic and social attacks given that in 2018 there will be no important regional elections.

But Merkel’s re-election would not automatically mean a long period of conservative rule. Germany’s stability is especially dependent on the European and world economies, both of which are fragile. Even now there are signs of instability in German politics, with repeated “surprise” election results in the various federal state elections. The instability of German politics, and also the flexibility of the German ruling class, is shown in the fact that currently there are 13 different types of coalitions in Germany’s 16 states. A change in the situation could unleash big protests, as was seen in the mass movement that began from below in 2003 against the then SPD-Green government’s ‘Agenda 2010’ neo-liberal counter-reforms. The international situation, in the negative sense the sharpening conflicts around the world and the Trump presidency but also positively, as seen with new developments around the left, like Podemos in Spain, the Sanders’ movement in the US and, most recently, Corbyn’s electoral success in Britain, are also having an effect and widening interest for socialist and Marxist ideas. This is why we are optimistic about strengthening the forces of the CWI in Germany, preparing for the big struggles which lie ahead.

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June 2017