The September 1 state elections in the eastern German states of Brandenburg and Saxony saw a continuation of the decline of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) currently Germany’s ruling parties. The losses for DIE LINKE (LEFT party) were massive. But the other side these elections saw the far right AfD (Alliance for Germany) maintain the high level of support it won in both the 2017 general and last May’s European elections. Even though the AfD has not become the strongest force in either of these two states there can be no question of breathing a sigh of relief.
Many people in East and West Germany were understandably relieved that the AfD did not emerge in Brandenburg and Saxony as the strongest force in the state elections. But that does not mean either a setback for the AfD or that all the social problems and fears for the future that contributed to its rise have disappeared. The polarisation remains. Those on the left, trade unionists and anti-racist activists must draw the necessary conclusions from these election results in order to develop a strategy that can actually stop the AfD.
Who can breathe a sigh of relief?
Immediately the headlines of the bourgeois news media spoke of a “sigh of relief” after the election. But for the majority of working and young people this is not the case. In Brandenburg and Saxony, they will once again be faced with a coalition, albeit with new components, that will continue the pro-capitalist policies that made the rise of the AfD possible in the first place.
And the rise of the right-wing populists is unmistakable: In both states the AfD is now the second strongest force with 27.8 percent (+18.1 percentage points) in Saxony and 23.7 percent (+11.5) in Brandenburg. But this is only a breather for the leaders of the so-called “people’s parties” SPD and CDU, which remain the strongest forces in Brandenburg and Saxony respectively. According to the pre-election polls this was far from being a foregone result. The SPD and CDU had to reckon with the possibility of more severe defeats, which would have directly questioned the continued existence of their national Grand Coalition under Merkel.
But the question is what can be regarded as a breather for them today? In both states the CDU and SPD both achieved their worst ever results. In Saxony, the SPD achieved its worst result ever in its history with just 7.6 percent. So great is the loss of legitimacy, so great is the political instability in the Germany, that the bourgeois establishment is relieved by such an outcome. But that doesn’t change the fact that the future of the Grand Coalition is anything but certain. The upcoming mid-term review, the election of a new SPD leadership and the debates on the orientation of the CDU could lead to its end and an early general election.
Increased voter turnout
Voter turnout in both elections increased significantly (up 17.5 percentage points in Saxony and 13.4 in Brandenburg). The AfD in particular was able to win from previous non-voters. At the same time, a larger number of people took part in the election in order to prevent the AfD from winning and to re-elect the ruling party. Thus, the free fall of the CDU in Saxony and the SPD in Brandenburg was cushioned. But despite this increase in voter turnout, it is necessary to note that in Saxony one in three voters and in Brandenburg almost forty percent of those eligible to vote did not vote at all. The proportion of people who do not feel represented by any party – not even by the AfD posing as a protest party – is still the largest. This is where the decisive potential for DIE LINKE lies to mobilise voters. For these people from the working class, it must become a convincing representative fighting for their interests.
The AfD’s breeding ground
The social breeding ground on which the AfD could thrive can also be a starting point for left-wing and socialist ideas. Thirty years after the restoration of capitalism and the sale of East German industry to West German corporations, there is a lack of future prospects, good jobs and infrastructure, especially in rural regions. In East Germany 1.2 million people, every third employee, works full-time but on a low wage. In the larger cities such as Leipzig, Dresden and Potsdam, rents are rising at the same time. This is the result of the pro-capitalist policies of recent decades. Against this background, it is no wonder that the AfD can act as an opposition to the establishment here – especially if there is no authentic offer from the left. In Saxony 83 percent and in Brandenburg 87 percent of AfD voters say that it is the only party with which one can express protest. It can also channel the fears of and agitation against migrants which the bourgeois parties and the media have been spreading for years.
The AfD regional associations in Brandenburg and Saxony are also dominated by the right-wing nationalist wing around Björn Höcke, who deliberately tries to combine social demagogy with racist propaganda and last year in Chemnitz sought solidarity with Nazis. It is highly dangerous that these forces should now also receive the votes of many workers. In Brandenburg, 44 percent of manual workers and 23 percent of the other employees who voted did so for the AfD! That must be a wake-up call for trade unionists and leftists.
Left alternative looks different
In order to stop the right, a credible and militant alternative from the left is needed, one that takes on the banks and corporations and their political representatives in the CDU, SPD and Greens and at the same time draws a clear line against division and racism. No moral appeals against the AfD help combat its rise, only the common fight of all workers and socially disadvantaged for social improvements. At the same time one must discuss with work colleagues who voted AfD and show them that their programme, despite some (empty) social promises, is ultimately oriented towards the interests of the corporations. Combining the struggle against racism in society with the struggle for higher wages and low rents, for example, is above all the task of the trade unions. Since reunification in Brandenburg and Saxony, DIE LINKE has unfortunately completely failed to organise such struggles and, as a party claiming to be socialist, to do justice to them.
The strategy of the East German LINKE leadership that one can negotiate social improvements with pro-capitalist parties such as the SPD and the Greens has failed, and not only in the last five years. In Brandenburg, as part of the red-red state government from 2009, DIE LINKE already lost 8.6 percent in the last election in 2014. This time, after another five years of being in coalition with the SPD, DIE LINKE’s Brandenburg vote was around 135,500 compared with 400,700 10 years ago. But even in Saxony, this strategy has not fundamentally changed anything at the municipal level, as for example in the Dresden city council. It is not the task of a left-wing party to administer the shortages etc., but to organise the struggle against the rich, banks and corporations who don’t suffer. The failure to do this gave an opportunity to the far right to falsely pose as defenders of working people.
The receipt for its policy was received by DIE LINKE in these elections, where its share was almost halved (18.9% to 10.4% in Saxony, 18.6% to 10.7% percent in Brandenburg). It is necessary for the East German LINKE to make a radical turn in the opposite direction. The party’s place must be in the city districts, companies and educational institutions, where it must enter into dialogue with wage earners, young people and the socially disadvantaged and help them to defend themselves and organise themselves. DIE LINKE must be present in the resistance and the local movements, where it must initiate or co-organise the struggle against low wages, usurious rents, the abolition of collective bargaining jobs and public infrastructure, etc. It must fight for improvements and make a difference in people’s real lives. That, of course, without weakening the fight against the right.
On this basis one could then also fill the goal of giving life to the fight a fundamentally different, socialist society. The election posters for “Democratic Socialism” of the Saxon LINKE instead seemed like abstract, empty creeds, when the day to day practice of the party is completely fixed within the framework of the capitalist system. Instead, the LINKE would have to show in all struggles (and also in parliament) that without the abolition of the capitalist profit system and its replacement by a socialist democracy, no sustainable and good life is feasible for all.
What do we do now?
The relatively stable economic situation in Germany seems to be coming to an end. However, this period was not a golden year for the employees, especially not in eastern Germany. The fact that such an unstable political landscape has developed in these years gives an idea of what the future holds. Against this background, the AfD’s recipe for growth in eastern Germany will to continue trying to play the role of the opposition. However, this could also increase the potential for conflict for the AfD as a whole if the rumbling internal infighting breaks out into the open after the October state elections in Thuringia, another East German state.
DIE LINKE will presumably try to conduct a government election campaign for red-red-green there. But if the party does not learn the lessons of the elections and fundamentally change its orientation, it risks its very existence. The discussion has already begun in DIE LINKE’s state associations and in the party as a whole, and is likely to increase after the elections in Thuringia. Instead of aiming to become a second SPD trying to work the capitalist system, what is needed is a militant socialist party that is the voice of wage earners and socially disadvantaged, but at the same time does not compromise its anti-racist principles. DIE LINKE must bring together colleagues, young people and activists from movements in the fight against social grievances, against those responsible for them and against right-wing populists and offer a socialist alternative to capitalism.