After the federal elections held on 24 September 2017, it took almost exactly half a year for the new government to be sworn in. This is completely unprecedented in German post-war history. On top of that in the Bundestag (parliament) vote this month to appoint Merkel she got only nine votes more than the legal requirement to become Chancellor. Thirty five members of the governing parties refused to vote for her. That suggests that this will not be a strong government.
In September’s elections, all three previous governing parties of the outgoing “Grand Coalition”, the two Christian parties (CDU and CSU) and the social democrats (SPD), suffered significant losses. On election night, Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for chancellor, declared, to stormy applause from his supporters, that the SPD would now go into opposition after receiving their lowest percentage vote since universal suffrage was won in 1919.
This was followed by weeks of negotiations between Merkel’s CDU, the Bavarian CSU, the Liberals (FDP) and the Greens. In particular, the CSU, which had lost 10.5 percentage points in the elections (above all to the right-wing populist and pro-capitalist AfD) ending up with 38.8% in Bavaria, and which faces state elections on 14 October 2018, tried to distinguish itself with right-wing demands. The Greens were willing to throw all of their principles overboard for participation in the government. But then the FDP stepped out of the negotiations, arguing that they had won too fewf of their demands. The FDP, which in the 2013 general election failed to pass the five-percent hurdle for the first time after the Second World War and returned to the Bundestag only in 2017 after a massive advertising campaign, apparently feared that in a new coalition with the CDU, as in 2009-2013, they would be pulverised again and lose their seats. Whether the FDP have done themselves a favour, in the long run with this decision is a completely different question.
After the failure of the “Jamaican” negotiations (the party colours of the CDU, CSU, FDP and Greens correspond to the colours of the Jamaican flag), there was massive pressure on the SPD to abandon its promise to go into opposition. In the following months, there was a fierce conflict in the SPD, which was however less motivated by a fundamental programmatic rejection of a coalition with Merkel but by fear that a renewed coalition would lead to a further loss of votes and seats in future elections.
The mouthpiece and organizing centre of the inner-SPD opposition to coalition were the Young Socialists (from whom little has been heard of for many years). This was not an expression of the Young Socialists’ strength, but of the weakness of the left wing of the party, which did not have another figurehead. A ‘German Corbyn’ is nowhere to be seen inside the SPD. The Young Socialists, too, were miles away from socialist opposition to neo-liberal politics and more driven by concerns over the continued existence of the party in which they want to make their careers. Given the fate of social democratic parties in countries such as Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland or France, this is a reasonable fear.
However, they had no credible alternative to offer to a new coalition. Tolerating a minority government is not attractive for people who imagine political influence, above all, as government participation and to whom the idea of putting pressure onto a government by extra-parliamentary movements seems unworldly (in fact they live in a parallel world themselves as professional politicians). After a SPD double zigzag (first against government participation, then in favour and then against again) new elections would have, according to the opinion polls, led to an even more devastating election result for the SPD than in September. In fact, in some polls, the SPD was even behind the AfD or the SPD and CDU / CSU together no longer had a majority. Under these circumstances, the SPD’s decision was one between an end with horror and horror without end. As in 2013, the SPD leadership wanted to impose the responsibility for the participation in the government onto the party, as a whole, by getting the result of the coalition negotiations approved by a membership referendum. This they achieved when 66 per cent (on 78 per cent participation) voted for the horror without end of a new edition of the Merkel government, because an end with horror seemed to them even more horrible.
In the coalition negotiations in 2013, the SPD pushed through, that for the first time, the introduction of a statutory minimum wage in Germany (after years of extra-parliamentary campaigning by the left, trade unions, etc.). It was and is far too low and has too many exceptions, but nevertheless it had a considerable symbolic meaning. But that was not enough to keep the SPD from losing votes in the elections. This time, they have not pushed through anything comparable. Can we expect them to do better in the next elections in four (or, more precisely, three and a half) years’ time? After the coalition negotiations, the SPD leadership has bragged about how much of their ideas they pushed through. This only shows how close the SPD and the CDU are and how great are the overlap between the neoliberal policies of these two parties.
Although the coalition contract contains one or the other cosmetic improvement (some are simply cancellations of cuts etc. that the SPD had itself introduced earlier), on the other hand it contains deteriorations. Above all, there is no guarantee that even these improvements will be put into practice. Already in the past, decisions were not implemented. And in recent years, we have had an economic recovery and extremely low interest rates, which have drastically reduced the German government’s debt service expenditures. What happens if an economic crisis or protectionist measures in the US hit the export-dependent German economy? With regard to Trump’s tax cuts, the German capitalists are already pressing for tax credits beyond the policy agreed in the coalition agreement. The money for such gifts would surely come from the pockets of the working class.
And finally, the inner laws of capitalism create a growing gap between rich and poor, increasing environmental destruction. A policy of “more of the same”, a policy that does not actively counteract these developments, means worsening conditions for the working class, even if it does not directly attack us.
Sharing out governmental posts
The area where the SPD negotiated their best outcome was the sharing out of prime governmental posts. With the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Labour, the SPD holds three central ministries. The CDU complains, above all, about the loss of the Ministry of Finance. But there is no reason to believe that the SPD would use its ministries for more progressive policies. In particular, Finance Minister Scholz and Labor Minister Heil are inextricably linked with Gerhard Schröder and his anti-social Hartz austerity laws and stand for a tough neo-liberal policy.
The CDU and CSU are trying to cut the ground from under the AfD’s feet by partially copying their rhetoric and politics. Experience shows that this has the opposite effect and will continue to drive supporters towards the AfD. At the same time, it means drastic worsening of refugees’ situation, dismantling of democratic rights etc. The new interior minister Seehofer, from the CSU, stands for this policy. Right-wing and racist ideas will have tailwind from this policy and from the fact that the AfD, as the largest opposition party, has a key platform in the Bundestag which will attract media attention. The Left and the workers’ movement have the task of actively showing that they and not the AfD are the real opposition to the coalition.
Many people in Germany will be happy to have a government again instead of an acting government with restricted powers. But, in reality, this government will not represent the interests of the mass of the population. If our opponents have restricted powers, that is quite positive for us. A concrete consequence of this new edition of the Grand Coalition was already visible. In November, the case of a female doctor made headlines after she was fined for having information concerning abortions on her website. The judges saw in this an illegal advertising for abortions. This ruling rightly caused indignation and parties filed bills against this reactionary ban. A Bundestag majority for at least a mitigation of this conviction seemed possible. But the day before the swearing-in of the new government, the SPD withdrew its bill out of coalition discipline, as CDU and CSU are strictly against any improvement in this issue.
It was no coincidence that the forming of a government took so long, despite currently favourable conditions (economic growth, gushing government revenues). This is the result of decades of neoliberal politics and wage restraint that has enabled German capitalism to take advantage of international economic growth. None of the governing parties stands for goals that can inspire the masses of their followers. Above all the AfD has benefited from the dissatisfaction about it and the fear of an uncertain future. In western Germany, however, the Left Party (DIE LINKE) has recently also significantly gained votes and members. This is unlike in eastern Germany (and eastern Berlin), where it is seen as part of the establishment and has implemented neoliberal policies in several states and many municipalities.
For years, the right wing of the Left Party argued for a coalition with the SPD and Greens (“red-red-green”). After the re-launch of the Grand Coalition, the co-leader of the LINKE MPs in the Bundestag, Dietmar Bartsch, a representative of this wing, was forced to declare: “Red-red-green at the federal level is de facto dead.” However this discovery comes late and remains limited to the federal level. The Left Party must stop constantly looking to the SPD leaders and celebrating every time they give lip service, usually simply for electoral purposes, to social politics as a change of course.
The SPD’s decline provides an opportunity and a challenge to the Left Party. The Left Party was formed out of the movement against the 2003 “Agenda 2010” austerity measures of the SPD/Green party coalition and achieved its highest Bundestag vote, so far (11.9%) in 2009 at the end of Merkel’s first grand coalition with the SPD. But unfortunately the Left Party did not build upon this result, but effectively orientated towards trying to persuade the SPD to change its coalition partners. While the SPD’s vote has been generally falling – from 40.9% in 1998 to 23% in 2009 and just 20.5% last September – the Left Party failed to continue to gain from this (its vote last September was 860,000 lower than in 2009).
This is the background to the Left Party losing support including, in some areas, to the AfD. If the Left Party geared itself towards building extra-parliamentary movements, rooted in workplaces and communities, for affordable housing, for more staff in hospitals, against racism, etc., it can become a strong left-wing pole of attraction over the next period. This would provide a challenge to the AfD and other potential right populist forces. Then it would become clear that the success of the AfD does not mean an inevitable shift to the right of society but is part of a growing polarization. That would be the best starting point for major class struggles that will come sooner or later in Germany, especially when the upswing ends and the government moves to major attacks on the working class.