Germany plunged into political crisis

(Wikimedia commons/CC)

The abrupt end to the series of exploratory talks to negotiate a ‘Jamaica coalition’ (so-named because the respective parties’ colours: CDU/CSU (conservatives), FDP (Liberals) and Greens match those of the Jamaican national flag) came as a surprise. The possibilitythat a group of power hungry, ambitious politicians spark a political crisis, the like of which has never been seen in the history of post-war Germany, despite them acting all in the interests of the major banks and big companies, just seemed improbable. This even more given the country’s relatively stable economic situation and big budget surplus. Improbable or not, it happened. But how did this come about – and what will happen next?


A main culprit could be easily identified: Christian Lindner and his (Liberal) Free Democratic Party was responsible for the negotiations’ collapse and quite possibly never had the slightest intention of letting them reach a successful conclusion.

After the breakdown of the talks was announced representatives of the CDU, CSU and Greens unanimously declared that, in their view, an agreement between all participants had been entirely possible.

There is a quite widely-held belief that the “collapse” of the exploratory talks had been prepared well in advance by the FDP leadership. They harboured concerns that, as a minor partner in a Merkel-led government, they could experience a repeat of their tenure in the 2009-2013 CDU/CSU-FPD coalition which ended with a disastrous fall in their share of the vote to below the five percent required to secure a place in the German parliament (Bundestag). They may also be gambling on the idea that their tweeted message “It’s better not to govern, than govern badly” will resonate after the talks failed and increase their share of the vote in fresh elections. There are various reasons for thinking that they have miscalculated their chances: not least because many voters backed the FDP precisely to prevent the formation of another grand coalition – a prospect that is now more possible due to their actions.

Although the motives of Christian Lindner and his fiercely pro-business, neoliberal FDP for torpedoing the negotiations might have been to further their own party political interests, the true reasons are rooted elsewhere and are much more profound.

The German political system is getting out of joint; the crisis of trust and confidence in the capitalist parties and institutions has become so widespread that the ruling class does not know how to respond. The fear of making a potentially suicidal political move is now so great that they are more inclined to protect their respective narrow party interests than fulfil the “responsibility of office” (i.e. responsibility for maintaining some form of stability for capitalism). Thus, we have seen a growing number of situations arise in which the general interests of the ruling capitalist class no longer predominate. In fact, the entire political system has ceased to be a fully reliable tool for representing the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. This is a global phenomenon that has been starkly underscored over the past two years, e.g. in the election of Trump as US President, the Brexit vote and more recently with the declaration of Catalan independence.

Agreement over policies was entirely possible

Germany is not facing the unsettled conditions of the Weimar Republic, that chaotic period of political and economic turmoil between the wars. The current economic and social conditions are too stable for things to unravel to that extent, but we have been afforded a glimpse of the kind of political crises to expect in the future when the economic upswing becomes a downturn or even an economic crisis.

Despite the existence of real policy differences, the primary reason for the collapse of coalition talks lies elsewhere. The Greens had once again demonstrated their aptitude for discarding principles in return for a place in government – restrictions on petrol engines, coal-fired power stations, an annual cap on refugee numbers. The day before the haggling ended the Greens seemed prepared to compromise even on refugees (opting for a “soft cap” of 200,000 a year).

Apparently they stood their ground on the issue of family reunification of refugees. However in view of the results of a recent survey which showed that the number of family members this would affect is far lower than the estimates cited by the right-populist AfD or CDU/CSU sources and also lower than the figures for the past two years, it is difficult to believe that a compromise on this could not have been brokered. In addition, the participating parties had already agreed on a significant number of measures favouring the bosses, such as the further flexibilisation of legislation on working hours.

What now?

What happens now? The need for fresh elections seems self-evident, notwithstanding the statement by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday 20 November in which he did not even mention this option, urging instead for politicians to reconsider and resume negotiations. He seems to prefer either a Jamaica solution or the inclusion of the SPD in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU which, incidentally, would prove quite the opposite to grand.

This latter outcome is unlikely, not least because it was rejected unanimously by the SPD national executive on the same day as talks collapsed. After the SPD’s electoral success in the state election in Lower Saxony, the SPD feels – with some justification – that they could pick up votes and gain a few percentage points in a new election.

It is even more unlikely that the parties engaged in the Jamaica talks will reconsider and do a U-turn. There are too many hoops to jump through – it is not even clear over who would have to concede compromises over which issues.

A minority government would pose a new and much greater risk than new elections as it would mean an unstable government incapable of acting effectively at home but especially at an international level. The strength of German imperialism has been demonstrably weakened at a time when the international situation is difficult and Merkel had been hailed as a new leader of the free world, and now looks like a lame duck.

New elections – or a “Kenya” coalition?

A new general election is not inevitable. Interestingly, the SPD only rejected the idea of a grand coalition but another, admittedly highly unusual variation, might be a black-red-green coalition, nicknamed the “Kenyan” option, comprising CDU/CSU, SPD and Greens. The political differences might seem insurmountable, but are they really issues that cannot be overcome? After all, the CDU/CSU and Greens did not miss an opportunity to explain how well they were getting on with one another before. This parliamentary constellation would have a big majority, giving the FDP Liberals a chance to outshine the AfD in opposition while helping the SPD to avoid losing face because the conservative parties would be in a weaker position than they would have been within a grand coalition. However, this scenario also seems unlikely, as the CDU/CSU are fearful of the tumult in their own ranks and that they would be a real risk of the CSU losing in next year’s Bavarian state elections.

A CDU/CSU-SPD-Liberal coalition is a theoretical option but the recent actions of the FDP are likely to exclude them from a return to the government benches..
So is a new election definitely on the cards? The media speculates that in this event the AfD (ultra-right populists) will gain votes because the breakdown of Jamaica could be seen as confirmation of the AfD’s position. Surveys also suggest that the right populists are more likely to increase their vote than lose support. Their relatively poor results in the Lower Saxony elections this October can be attributed more to local factors than to a shifting mood among AfD voters. But the fact is, most people would prefer a government to no government and it is important to understand this as fresh elections might trigger a “desire for stability” effect which weakens the support of the AfD and FDP but strengthens the CDU/CSU and possibly the SPD as well, as some AfD voters are likely to remain at home: the election results of 24 September had done their work and shaken things up.


For DIE LINKE (the Left Party), a new general election could see them emerge as winners, conversely they could lose votes: the outcome will depend entirely on the political demands, manifesto and stance the party adopts. The Left Party needs to organise a broad democratic debate with the full involvement of its rank and file. Unfortunately, everything suggests that the leadership will not use the opportunities provided by a general election to start afresh. The publicly-conducted power struggles within the party and Sahra Wagenknecht’s attempts to pressurise and intimidate the parliamentary fraction have exacted enormous damage on the party over the past few weeks.

Wagenknecht (co-leader of the Left Party parliamentary fraction) is unlikely to stop propounding her incorrect policies on migration in a forthcoming general election and, in all probability, the idea of a new coalition of left movements mooted by Oskar Lafontaine (a figurehead of the left, former leader of the SPD and later of the Left Party) would set the tone of the election campaign.

While a new collaboration on the left might seem an enticing proposition, in reality a loose movement would mean undermining the Left Party’s internal democracy and could lead to a formalisation of working with the SPD “Left” who generally limit themselves to working within capitalism. Everything suggests that the next general election campaign will be steered even more by “Team Sahra” than by the Left Party itself. Such a development is a recipe for internal party conflict which would demoralise many Left Party members in the run-up to and even during the election campaign itself.

The response of Left Party national joint chairpersons Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping to the collapse of the Jamaica talks more or less tells us that they favour the formation of an electoral bloc with the SPD against the parties that had engaged in the Jamaica talks. By doing so they would miss the chance to win over voters from the opposition. One thing is certain, there will be no majority backing an SPD/Left/Green Party government if an election is held in the coming months– everyone knows that. And if the CDU/CSU and SPD come out of the new elections with only the slightest increase in their number of votes, they would be speaking of their “duty” to form a grand coalition.

Following the 24 September election no-one in the SPD drew the conclusion that the future of their party rested in the formation of a government coalitions with the Left Party and Greens. So, it is nonsensical for Left Party co-chair Bernd Riexinger to be talking about the importance of forming a left alternative to the neoliberal bloc, by which he means the “Jamaica parties” thereby implying that the “left” comprises the SPD and the Left Party. We have repeatedly explained why this political approach is wrong. Although it is, in reality, a thinly-disguised excuse to disguise their indulgence in party tactics, the moral high ground taken by the FDP over their unwillingness to be part of a government that has no neo-liberal agenda, is something the Left Party could learn from. It goes without saying, that there would be no socialist agenda coming from the SPD and Greens. That is precisely why the Left Party needs to become the biggest opposition party challenging both the AfD and the kind of anti-working policies that can be expected from any of the parties and any possible coalition or governing scenario that might emerge.

The Left Party needs to reflect closely on the results of September’s general election and draw the necessary conclusions: in eastern Germany (including East Berlin) it lost a massive number of votes, Where the Left Party has served in government alongside the SPD in local councils and three federal state governments it has also shared responsibility for the problems of those communities rather than being seen as the force behind protest and social change that it once was. In the west, the party gained votes in many towns where the rank and file of the Left Party was actively engaged in social and trade union struggles and thus seen as an anti-establishment force.

The Left Party must immediately switch to (election) campaign mode. The first decision of the party’s new (acting) General Secretary Harald Wolf should be to shred the general election posters (in all likelihood many will still be stowed under the stairs, in cellars, etc.) and adopt the poster design of the Munster branch.

The two-line demands that appeared on these posters spoke directly to the voters and would be excellent in a future election. The next step of the party leadership should then be to launch a bold anti-capitalist campaign, attacking the rich and all establishment parties with demands such as “a cap on wealth – not people”, “the true scroungers – tax avoiders”, “protect the climate not capitalism” and – echoing Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the US – “break the power of the billionaire class!”

If the Left Party shows that issues such as environmental protection, global warming and solidarity with refugees represent more for them than bargaining chips, it would be possible to draw support from people who cast their votes for the Greens in the genuine belief that the Green Party is a progressive alternative. On the issues of migration and refugees there must be no deviation from the party policy of unconditional solidarity with refugees. At the same time, the Left Party must be not budge from its position that the wealthy must pay and that the struggle for decent affordable housing, a higher minimum wage and good jobs is a common struggle that includes everyone, irrespective of the colour of their skin or nationality.

In many respects, the next election campaign needs to be different from this year’s election, inasmuch as it must be more clearly pitched against the capitalist establishment and raise demands that clearly address the interests of people fighting social injustice and engage in practical daily struggles, such as the Siemens workers’ current battle against redundancies.

With clear demands such as the repeal of Agenda 2010 (the most severe attack on the welfare state in postwar Germany introduced under a SPD-Green government), a minimum wage of 12 euros an hour with no exemptions, a statutory minimum patient-staff ratio in hospitals, a ban on agency work and unfounded dismissal from temporary employment, a ban on arms exports, the Left Party could demonstrate that it is the only force with a political programme addressing the interests of the millions, not the millionaires and billionaires. At the same time, it would expose the empty phrase-mongering of the SPD who preach social justice but have no concrete solutions.

Sascha Staničić is Secretary of the SAV (CWI in Germany), an active member of DIE LINKE (Left Party) in Neukölln, Berlin, and the anti-capitalist left (AKL) group within the Left Party

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November 2017