Bavarian elections and huge #unteilbar anti-racist demonstration – a weekend of German history

Much of the German media is understandably discussing the “historical event” that took place last weekend – last Sunday’s regional elections in Bavaria. The decline of both the CSU (Bavarian counterpart of Merkel’s Christian-Democrat CDU) and SPD (social democrats) has indeed historic dimensions and will have repercussions for developments in the whole of Germany.

But there was also another historical event on Saturday; the #unteilbar (“#indivisible”) demonstration against racism and for social justice in Berlin, with around 250,000 participating. This was one of the biggest mobilisations in Germany since World War II, and a clear signal to all that the far right and right-wing populists may often be louder, but are not the majority.

The Merkel-era has already begun to end. The results of the Bavarian regional elections have accelerated this process. Nevertheless, the results were not the worst case scenario (a “Super-GAU”, i.e. a total meltdown) that had been predicted on the basis of recent opinion polls. It would have been a Super-GAU for the grand coalition and the German ruling class if the CSU would have won less than 35 per cent and if the LINKE (Left Party) had entered the regional parliament. If it had won less than 35%, the CSU would not have been able to form a coalition with the Freien Wählern, the “Free voters”, a small conservative party founded 40 years ago that has been in the Bavarian regional parliament since 2008. This would possibly have led to a rapid collapse of the federal German government. Now the grand coalition parties, CDU, CSU and SPD have been given the possibility to postpone its termination.

This does not alter the situation facing the Merkel government of hanging by a thread, as its support dwindles, with the latest poll shows it has just 39% support. When did we ever have a situation where the leaders of all governing parties are openly putting into question whether they will still be in charge by the end of the year?

No shift to the right

The past weekend has shown that there is no general shift to the right in Germany. There has been a shift to the right of government policies, in general, especially by the CSU and parts of the CDU, and right-wing populism has become stronger, resulting in a growing polarisation.

The far right populist AfD, bourgeois politicians and the media have especially put the issue of migration into the spotlight in an excessive manner. Not least, this is done to draw attention away from social problems and from those really responsible in the government and big corporations. This became a boomerang, giving the AfD an enormous upturn and further undermining the grand coalition.

If the media reported, or the labour movement and left trumpeted, the daily solidarity actions for refugees (still involving, one way or another, more people than there are AfD-voters), the many mass protests against the far right, the struggle of tenants and health care workers for better social conditions for the majority of people, and the tax evasion of the rich, as intensively and tendentious, like it has been the case with the events of  Chemnitz, the Pegida protests, the alleged scandal of wrongly approved asylum applications in Bremen (which has been revealed to be a fraudulent campaign) etc., then public debates and moods would have developed differently.

But both the Bavarian elections, and above all the #unteilbar-demo have proved the actual conditions in Germany to be different. The AfD’s vote, while substantial, was below expectations and there was not been a general shift to the right, but mainly shifts within the camps. The CSU not only lost votes to the right wing, to the AfD, but also to its ‘left’, the Green Party.

In this election, the Greens were able to collect the protest against the far right and the CSU’s own right shift. The Greens benefited from being in opposition on a national level since the defeat of the SPD-Green coalition in 2005, and the fact that, alongside the anger about the grand coalition, the issue of climate change has become more important for many people.

Moreover, the struggle against right-wing populism and the right-wing politicians in the ‘grand coalition’ is often seen to be a sort of clash about social values, with the social questions hardly appearing in these debates. This also helps the Greens who, in several regional states, do not have any problem going into coalition with any other party (except the AfD), and carrying out pro-capitalist policies.

The fact that trade union members and workers voted, above average, for the AfD, has to be seen as a warning sign. It expresses the alienation of those layers from establishment politics, especially the SPD, but also shows that the social questions were not put in the centre of attention or has been overshadowed by the issue of migration. One reason for this situation is the trade union leadership’s support for the grand coalition on a national level. Instead of organising an opposition on a class base, and education campaigns inside the workplaces revealing the AfD for what it is, an anti-workers’ party.

Unstable Grand Coalition

More than other elections, the elections in Bavaria have been differentiated from national politics. Specific factors in Bavaria play a decisive role, like the CSU leader, Horst Seehofer (the racist interior minister from Bavaria, who just called migration the “mother of all problems”). The differences between the CDU and CSU, and inside the CDU, along with rows inside the grand coalition, are not necessarily rooted in Seehofer’s ego. They express strategic differences on how to maintain political power, European policies and migration. In this sense, Seehofer is not the “father of all problems” of the grand coalition. But his political style has been aggravating or even created problems in particular situations. Accordingly, since the Bavarian election, pressure on him has been intensified, with the CSU-district branch in the town of Kronach being the first to demand that Seehofer resigns as CSU-chairman. Some SPD members want to replace him as interior minister. It cannot be ruled out that he will be sacrificed to try to, firstly, letting off steam, and generally pacifying relations between CDU and CSU, including within the national government, to a degree. But it has to be questioned whether Seehofer’s ego is up to that accepting that.

Another open question is what will the SPD do? For the SPD, the Bavarian elections did result in a Super-GAU. For the first time since 1893, the party received a single-digit vote! Instead of benefiting from the conflict between Seehofer and Merkel or Seehofer’s role in the scandal around Maaßen (the former head of Germany’s internal intelligence service), the SPD cannot get rid of its reputation for simply backing Merkel and getting nice jobs for its leaders. This is the reason for its steady decline; with many polls indicate that the SPD has lost a quarter of its support since the general election just over a year ago.

According to polls, a majority of current and former SPD voters want the party to be in opposition on a national level. If elections in the region of Hesse, at the end of October, resulting in another disaster, there might be a dynamic ability to force the SPD to break up the national coalition. This could happen very soon or around the three regional elections due in eastern Germany next year. These polls are very probably are going to be the next slap in the grand coalitions’ face, if not following next autumn’s half-term evaluation of the government’s record, which is written into the coalition agreement.

No doubt, attempts will be made to quickly form a Bavarian state government between the CSU and Freie Wähler, to create the impression of politicians “doing their homework” and being able to guarantee stability. However, this could be messed up by the Hesse elections, if the local CDU minister-president Bouffier loses his position. In that case, it is not impossible for the frustration with the Merkel regime inside the CDU to burst open at their national conference in December, in such way which would make it impossible for her to continue as chancellor.


DIE LINKE (Left party) did worse than predicted in some polls. Nevertheless, it nearly doubled its votes compared to the last elections and managed to cross the 5-per cent hurdle in bigger cities. This undemocratic barrier surely was a factor in complicating mobilizations of voters, because of their worries of wasting their vote against the CSU. But, in the end, the reasons for this weak result are not just to be found in the objective circumstances, but in the way the party has been presenting itself – but not only that – and not first and foremost in Bavaria.

Election results are not to be looked at in short-term perspectives. Th Left Party has been stronger, in Bavaria and nationally, than it is today, especially in the period after the deep economic crisis from 2008 to 2009. But much potential has been wasted because the party did not present itself as a rebellious, activist and anti-capitalist force which is part of extra-parliamentary movements. When you have Left Party co-chair, Katja Kipping, continuously advertising a ‘R2G red-red-green’ (SPD, LINKE and Greens) national government over the last few weeks, this will add to an impression of this party being a governing force in the waiting.

The Bavarian Left Party could have entered its election campaign with clearer slogans, although in recent years it played an important role in the great mass mobilisations in the region. This includes a 40,000-strong mass demonstration in Munich against a new, extremely undemocratic and repressive police law, and in the campaign for a referendum to legally improve the ratio of staff to patients in health care. This orientation towards movements and struggles is the right way to go, and if this had already been put into reality consistently throughout the last 10 years, the Left Party could have advanced further and have a stronger base. In Bavaria, the SPD, and especially the Greens, were part of these movements and protests. Here the real roots and base of the Left Party in the neighborhoods, workplaces and in education sector were decisive, and the party had to distance itself clearly from policies of the SPD and the Green party.

Concretely, we have to assume, that Shara Wagenknecht’s project “aufstehen” (“standing up”, see the article and the public debates, as well as her distancing herself from the #unteilbar-manifestation the day before the regional elections, cannot have helped the Left Party. This is not about finding a scapegoat to blame for all the unfulfilled expectations, or giving simple answers where complex reflections are needed. But when the co-chair of the Left Party’s Bundestag MPs starts a project aiming equally at supporters of SPD and Greens, as well as at her own party, when this chair has been criticising her own party in public repeatedly, and then distances herself from social mobilizations against the far right and for social justice, it is not surprising that during elections some voters gave their vote to the Greens rather than to the Left Party or abstained (and with all the cheers about the increased turnout from 63.6% to 72.4%, we should not forget that still one quarter of voters stayed home).

The „aufstehen“ has aroused much interest and expresses the hopes amongst many for an end to the grand coalition and an awakening on the left. However, Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters seem unable to handle this interest and potential support in a responsible manner. Their comments on the #unteilbar-demonstration show especially a complete failure in political orientation. Wagenknecht said she would not attend, falsely claiming that one of the demonstration’s slogans was “open borders for everyone” and that this would marginalise those who were both against open borders and racism. But clearly making political concessions is central in the minds of the „aufstehen“ leaders who aim to work within capitalism. Therefore on any occasion (even if, as in this case, there was no need for it) they distance themselves from supporting or appearing to support the demand for ‘open borders’, in order to emphasize, in one way or another, either an alleged limit on Germany’s capacity to integrate immigrants or the demand for more controls on immigration, to win parts of AfD voters. This is not a left approach. Christian Jakob was to the point when he wrote in the daily newspaper, ‘taz’: “To be left means starting to think from [ peoples‘] needs and rights at first, then raising the question of the division of society’s wealth and only then talking about limited resources.” By approaching the question that way, you draw the conclusion that the actual migration to Germany does not go beyond any limits of the country’s resources, especially taking into regard the grotesque amount of private wealth.

What next?

The Left Party and the left need to face up to the question about how to proceed after the #unteilbar-demonstration. Not only because of its size but because it put the social questions in all their various dimensions into the centre of an anti-racist mobilisation, and it represents new quality. For sure, a demonstration that size cannot be repeated so easily and so soon. But the question is, if there is a possibility of developing, from this demonstration, a real gathering movement of left, trade unionist and social activist forces, which could be a pole of attraction for many thousands who have not been in any way organized or engaged, but want to do more than just attending demonstrations.

We need local #unteilbar-conference and a large national conference, local campaigns bringing together tenant activists, health care workers, refugees, striking Ryanair-workers (some of whom were on the #unteilbar-demo) and environmental activists, that could trigger a debate about what we have in common, and the base of common interest, creating a network of different protests and movements.

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October 2018