Germany before federal elections: Superficial recovery but fundamental instability

Merkel will be leaving the stage soon...what will follow in Germany? (Photo: Creative Commons)

The parliamentary elections taking place in Germany at the end of September will mark an end of an era. Having governed in various government constellations since 2005, Angela Merkel is not standing again. Generally, the election outcome is more uncertain than at any time in recent years. Opinion polls this year have swung back and forth – briefly the Greens were shown as the largest party, while support for both Christian Democrats and the liberal FDP has recovered from previous lows. But the exact makeup of the parliament is still very open. This uncertainty is part of the general instability that characterises Germany, as well as many other countries.

Economic recovery with big question marks

In recent months, there has been a clear recovery in the German economy, especially in manufacturing. In mid-June, it was published that order books in manufacturing in April were 11.4 per cent fuller than before the Corona crisis (February 2020). German industry had been in a serious economic crisis in the winter of 2019/20, which was then massively exacerbated by the Corona pandemic. While there was much talk of lockdown, the ruling class tried to continue industrial production as unchecked as possible anyway. But this was only partially successful. Disruptions in international supply chains led to considerable production losses in the first lockdown, even though workers were widely expected to continue to toil for profits and travel to work on public transport despite the pandemic. Cases of workplaces being Corona hotspots were often covered up.

Then, during the second lockdown last winter, the ruling class was much more successful in maintaining manufacturing production, while the leisure life of the working population was subjected to massive restrictions, which also led to significant slumps in the service sector. The recovery of manufacturing was partly a normal reaction to the deep slump of the months before. However, it was clearly strengthened by the economic recovery of Germany’s most important sales market: China. The strong weight of manufacturing and exports for the German economy, as a whole, led to growth figures and growth forecasts that were above those achieved by the German economy in most years after the global economic crisis of 2007-2009.

In fact, however, several big question marks hang over the further development of the German economy.

The first question mark concerns the further course of the pandemic. Once the vaccination campaign got underway after considerable initial problems, the ruling class spread optimism that Corona would soon hardly affect the German economy. In recent days, the rapid spread of the delta variant of the virus in various countries and the beginning of this spread also in Germany has led to warnings (e.g. from the Ifo Institute) that the further development of the virus could well have the potential to mess up the economic recovery.

The second question mark is related to the fact that recently there have been cases of short-time working, especially in the car industry, which had nothing to do with Corona but with bottlenecks in the supply of computer chips. This was due to production stoppages in Taiwan linked to a severe drought there and to global climate change. Such events are a drastic indication that global warming is a threat that also affects the capitalist economy in many ways. Supply problems of timber and other building materials have also led to economic shortages.

Under capitalist conditions, such bottlenecks lead not only to supply shortages, but above all to price increases for individual products. However, the global economic recovery after the deep Corona-induced slump in 2020 led to a noticeable increase in average prices, not only for individual products. The result was a debate about a possible danger of inflation among the ruling class. Even if the quantitative easing measures taken by central banks in many countries in recent years have led less to an increase in output and more to the inflation of speculative bubbles, a shift away from this policy towards interest rate hikes is still likely to have negative consequences for the economy. The bursting of speculative bubbles can have drastic consequences for the real economy; higher interest rates make debt servicing more expensive for both states and companies as well as for private households. That is the third question mark.

The fourth question mark concerns the consequences of the pandemic for the service sector and private consumption. Even though manufacturing and exports have a high weight in the German economy, this sector is of course not unimportant. Will people go shopping or out for leisure again when the lockdown ends, or will a sense of insecurity remain, causing people to save more than before the crisis? How many jobs in various service industries have been permanently lost due to the lockdown and what will be the impact on income and demand? The lockdown was historically unprecedented and therefore there are hardly any historical comparisons for its medium- and long-term consequences.

In recent months, government measures (even if they have largely benefited corporations and not the mass of the population) have absorbed the negative effects of the pandemic and the lockdown to a considerable extent. But how long will these measures continue and when will the political representatives of the ruling class begin to claw back from the working people the money with which they have been feeding the corporations? We do not expect the governing parties to decide (or even seriously discuss) such measures before the federal elections. They are already in election campaign mode and are beginning to use social demagogy to catch voters. However, the situation is somewhat different at the state and municipal levels, where the financial leeway is smaller.

Bourgeois government advisers have already started a debate on increasing the retirement age to 68 years. Already, many workers cannot continue working until the official retirement age and are forced to retire earlier with reduced pensions. For many, increasing the retirement age does not mean that they will work longer, but that the reductions will be greater and thus their actual pensions lower. How such debates and measures (after the elections also at the federal level) will affect sentiment, consumption etc. is the fifth big question mark hovering over the economic outlook.

Political instability

At the political level, instability is even greater than at the economic one. This starts with the impact of the Corona pandemic. Just recently, the mood was divided as measures taken for a few weeks in December were being extended and tightened. Nevertheless, Corona infections did not decrease for a long time but continued their seemingly unstoppable rise. The vaccination of the population proceeded much more slowly than in other countries. In addition to unfulfilled promises by politicians, one political scandal followed another: Members of parliament who had pocketed fat commissions for Corona protection mask deals, masks purchased too expensively by the government or masks of inferior quality.

Only in the last few weeks did the situation ease. The number of vaccinated people increased (about half of the population is vaccinated once, a quarter twice), the number of infections decreased, as did the number of severe courses of disease, the lockdown measures were relaxed at various levels. This is also reflected in opinion polls. In a poll published on 10 June (ARD Deutschlandtrend), 61 per cent of respondents said the Corona measures were appropriate (22 per cent more than a month earlier). The number of people for whom they did not go far enough halved from 26 per cent to 13 per cent. The number of people who thought they went too far dropped from 30 per cent to 24 per cent. (The pollsters constantly asked whether more or less action was needed. They never asked whether other measures were necessary, e.g. those that restricted less of our leisure time and more of capitalist profits).

This changed mood was also expressed in a changed attitude towards the political parties, which was clearly shown in June’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, the last ones before the federal elections at the end of September. The first losers were the opinion pollsters. They had predicted a neck-and-neck race between the ruling Christian democratic CDU and the far-right populist AfD. In fact, the CDU got almost twice as many votes (CDU 37.1 per cent, AfD 20.8 per cent). In part, this expresses that party ties have become much weaker and predictions have become more uncertain. However, the question arises whether polling institutes deliberately painted the spectre of AfD as the strongest show in town in order to drive potential non-voters and voters of other parties into the arms of the CDU. If that was the case, it was successful.

The CDU has experienced a rollercoaster ride over the past year. In spring 2020, at the beginning of the Corona crisis, it had a spike in the polls. As the leading party in government, it was able to distinguish itself as a doer, and since the government’s actions were significantly less bad than those of other governments (e.g. Trump in the US), its support in the polls rose well above its 2017 election result. In May 2020, the CDU was at 39 per cent together with its Bavarian counterpart, the CSU, whereas in the 2017 elections they had together achieved 33 per cent of the vote.

In the following months, the aforementioned scandals, affairs and policy failures, together with the wrangling over who would be the new CDU party leader and joint CDU-CSU candidate for chancellor, caused their support to plummet. In this March’s state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU lost significantly (2.9 and 4.1 percentage points respectively). These results would have been even worse if many had not already cast postal votes in the weeks before the CDU/CSU scandals reached their peak. In May, the CDU/CSU was at 23 per cent in polls, for the first time behind the Greens with 26 per cent. By June the CDU/CSU, after its election success in Saxony-Anhalt, rose to 28 per cent, while the Greens fell to 20 per cent. However, this means that the CDU is still well behind both its poll figures from last year and its 2017 election results.

There are several reasons for the significant decline of the Greens after their high-flying performance. On the one hand, their candidate for Chancellor Annalena Baerbock has provided areas for attack: she had to admit to not publishing full information about her income as MPs are meant to and making false claims in her curriculum vitae. But above all, there has been a targeted campaign by parts of the ruling class against her and the Greens. Large parts of the ruling class are counting on a coalition of the CDU/CSU with the Greens after the Bundestag elections … but not on a coalition of the Greens with the CDU/CSU, that is, a coalition in which the Greens would be the strongest force and provide the chancellor. They also want to avoid the Greens having other coalition options after the elections.

Marxists, while not supporting the Greens, have nothing in common with this bourgeois press campaign, which includes disgusting sexism in the tabloid press. We are fighting the Greens for entirely different reasons. Despite their once ‘radical’ image, and notwithstanding the ruling class still seeing them as unstable, the Greens have become a pro-capitalist party as seen in their years as national coalition partners for the SPD and currently their cosy partnership with the CDU in Baden-Württemberg. We declare that their policy of environmental protection by market-based means will lead to burdens on the working people (the relief they promise in return will fall victim to post-election austerity measures) and will be incapable of preventing an ecological catastrophe. The Greens, which emerged not only as an environmental party but also originally as a peace party, now have leaders who are among the main protagonists of an aggressive foreign policy by German imperialism towards Russia and China. Their co-party leader, Habeck, recently had himself photographed wearing a steel helmet during a visit to Ukraine and advocated arms exports to Ukraine.

The winners of the elections in Saxony-Anhalt and the polls also included the free-market radical FDP (Liberals), the “small party of big money”. On the one hand, they owe this to the fact that they have not been in a federal government since 2013 and many voters have forgotten what their policies mean. On the other hand, they were able to distinguish themselves in the Corona crisis by criticising government restrictions without presenting themselves as Corona deniers. Since the Left party, DIE LINKE, did far too little to attack the government from a working class perspective, it left a vacuum that the FDP, with its very different intentions, was able to partially fill along with others. Recently the FDP has recovered support and, in the opinion polls, is currently slightly above the 10.7% they scored in 2017. Last, but not least, a strong FDP after the elections is in the interest of the ruling class when it comes to charging the working people for the Corona measures.

It can be said that within the political instability, the decline of the social democrats, the former workers’ party SPD is one of the most stable factors. In the 1998 federal elections it had received 40.9 per cent, and in the following 23 years it governed – with the interruption of 2009-2013 – first as the leading governing party under Schröder, then as Angela Merkel’s junior partner. By the 2017 elections, it had sunk to 20.5 per cent. As it continued its coalition with the CDU/CSU thereafter, its decline in polls and the many state elections continued. It also failed to have a temporary surge in 2020 – like its bigger coalition partner – and remained consistently below its 2017 election result in the polls. In the poll already cited, published on 10 June, it was at 14 per cent and has only marginally improved since.

The far-right AfD had received 12.6 per cent of the vote in the 2017 federal elections. A key factor in this was that, together with considerable sections of the bourgeois media and politics, it was able to spread the idea that migration was the most important issue. In August 2017, 47 per cent named it as one of the two most important issues, compared to only 19 per cent in June 2021. The AfD’s attempts last year to lock on the protests by radical Corona deniers failed to convert into vote gains. In addition, there were internal party controversies, around the openly right-wing extremist wing. Nevertheless, the June 2021 poll puts it at 12 per cent, only slightly below its 2017 election result, even though the extremist right-wing tendency in the party has become much stronger since then. This illustrates that the danger from the far-right has by no means been averted. If the struggle against the AfD is waged predominantly as a cultural struggle of ‘open-minded’ neoliberal parties against the reactionary AfD, in which all parties agree to make politics against the working class, the struggle cannot be won at all.

DIE LINKE

In June’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, the left party DIE LINKE was the main loser. It fell from 16.3 per cent to 11 per cent. In 2011 it had won 23.7 per cent, 235,000 votes compared with 117,000 now. The LINKE’s state association there is led by those parts of the party that strongly rely on government participation with the SPD and the Greens. Already in Saxony-Anhalt, the LINKE’s predecessor, the PDS, had tolerated SPD-led state governments, between 1994-2002. After that, parliamentary arithmetic would no longer allow it. No wonder that DIE LINKE is seen by large parts of the population as part of the establishment. Its disastrous performance can hardly be explained by the fact that it lost votes to the CDU because voters wanted to prevent the AfD from becoming the strongest party. This was a factor for other parties, but the LINKE lost votes in all directions, including to non-voters and, to a lesser extent, to the AfD (and it must be noted that the party lost many voters to the AfD already in previous that did not come back).

Instead of representing class interests, the party had tried in the election campaign to distinguish itself as representing East German interests. One of DIE LINKE’s slogans was “Take command from the Wessis” (Wessis is pejorative for “West Germans”). In fact, East Germany continues to be dominated by politicians, bureaucrats and corporate managers from West Germany, and this was also the case in the state government in Saxony-Anhalt. However, the “highest command” at the political level was and is held by an east German, Prime Minister Haseloff, and he too commands in the interests of the banks and corporations. Such slogans are no help for a common class struggle of east and west German workers.

Nationwide, too, DIE LINKE has failed to take the opportunity to present itself as a left and fighting anti-establishment alternative in the interests of the working people in the Corona crisis. This is despite the fact that on the local level many party members play an important role in social movements and trade union struggles and that the party on a national level and its parliamentary group do support movements from below. Large parts of the party leadership is increasingly focusing on participation in government at the federal level in a coalition with the pro-capitalist social democracy and Greens despite the fact that such an outcome of the elections is unlikely. Where the party governs at state level, and in Thuringia even providing the prime minister, it does not pursue any qualitatively different policies, neither on the Corona issue nor otherwise.

In addition, there have been sharp disputes in recent months. The most prominent party figure, Sahra Wagenknecht, who was co-chair of its Bundestag group in the past, has turned into a nationalistic and left-populist direction and repeatedly attacks the LINKE for its position on migration (“open borders for those in desperation”) and demands restrictions to migration. She ignores party positions and party structures and clearly is preparing a split away from the party after the elections.

DIE LINKE’s June party congress tried to present itself as a united party and decided its election programme – a programme which includes many good demands for redistribution of wealth, social reforms, democratic rights and even raises the need for public ownership of the big banks and corporations but falls short of being a clear socialist programme which offers a fighting strategy for change – especially because it includes many contradictory demands and formulations and no socialist analysis of the capitalist crisis.

Despite DIE LINKE in February electing a national committee with an overwhelming ‘left’ majority the party leadership made absolutely clear their wish to enter a national coalition. Sometimes this covered was with seeming ‘left’ arguments such as ‘we are in a class struggle’, but ‘we don’t have a revolutionary situation’ so we have to ‘fight for progress within the system with other forces’. But despite using a few socialist phrases the leadership opposed and defeated calls for the election programme to describe DIE LINKE as socialist because ‘that would imply the other parties stood on the side of capitalism’. This simply ignored the party’s own history and that of both the SPD and Greens. One of the main forces behind DIE LINKE’s formation in 2007 was the massive popular opposition to the brutal neo-liberal, pro-capitalist ‘Agenda 2010’ austerity programme of the then SPD-Green coalition.

In opinion polls, the party is just at 6 or 7 per cent. It is by no means certain that DIE LINKE will clear the 5 per cent threshold in the elections. If it gets into the Bundestag (national parliament) a split away from the grouping around Sahra Wagenknecht is likely to happen in the next period. This will open up a new chapter in the fight for a new and socialist workers’ party in Germany.

Class struggles

As in other countries, trade unions have largely relied on social partnership with the bosses during the pandemic. As the trade union apparatuses remain closely intertwined with the SPD, they have largely glossed over the government’s policies. Often, especially in the collective bargaining round in the metal industry, the pandemic was used as a reason not to hold strike rallies in the open air, at best to disperse colleagues into human chains or to hold car parades. If, exceptionally, rallies did take place, colleagues could hear functionaries boasting that the colleagues in the factories were working “shoulder to shoulder” even in the pandemic and ensuring the success of the company.

However, there may be an important dispute coming up in the next few weeks. The train drivers’ union (GdL) refuses to participate in a wage settlement agreed between the railways and the other, larger, railway union EVG, which would make railway employees pay for a large part of the Corona-related losses of the railways.

But this issue is not just an economic issue – it also is a legal one. In 2015, at the insistence of the SPD, the so-called “collective bargaining unity law” was passed, according to which only the union with the most members in any company may conclude collective agreements, minority unions are excluded. This was a drastic attack on the right to strike, directed mainly against the GdL, which had previously waged determined industrial action. But also it was an attempt to legally get rid of what most leaders of unions within the DGB federation saw as the development of unwelcome competition. Thus, shamefully, most DGB union leaderships supported this law in order to get rid of this challenge from a non-DGB union with the help of the state.

As a result of neoliberal restructuring, the railways have been split into numerous operating units, each part of a separate company. According to railway figures, the EVG is the strongest union in 55 railway companies, the GdL in 16. Now the GdL has to defend its existence as a trade union capable of acting. A massive smear campaign against it by the bourgeois media and politics is to be expected, according to the motto: “Now we can finally travel again after Corona and then the evil GdL will spoil it for us with their strikes”. That is why solidarity with the GdL is important, despite the criticism we have of it on individual points and that we propose a programme to unite rail workers in action against this rotten deal.

The Corona pandemic has dramatically shown the importance of health care. If the demands of neoliberal think tanks and politicians in recent years regarding bed reductions and hospital closures had been implemented, it would have been fatal in the pandemic. The resistance of workers and trade unions prevented worse. In the pandemic, politicians made the surprising discovery that hospitals and hospital beds are not enough. They also need staff. And even before the pandemic, many hospital jobs could not be filled because of poor working conditions and low wages. Many workers who had started hospital training highly motivated gave up the job in frustration after a few years. Corona had further aggravated the working conditions. According to a survey, one-third of nursing staff are thinking about leaving the profession.

Without massive countermeasures, after the pandemic (insofar as there really is an “after”), there is a threat of a vicious circle of poor working conditions, resignations from the job, vacant jobs and even worse working conditions. In Berlin, there is a campaign by the workers of the big hospital groups Charité and Vivantes for better staffing. The trade union ver.di has set an ultimatum until the end of August. If there are no improvements by then, it is threatening to go on strike before the federal and Berlin city elections are both held on 26 September.

Tenants’ movement

Another key social issue is the rent question. In Germany, the majority of households, especially young people and families, are tenants, official statistics show that in 2018 only 46.5 per cent of households were homeowners. In large cities and amongst the working class, the proportion of tenants is much higher. Recent decades have seen both neoliberal policies of governments and real estate speculation leading to rents, and house prices, rising much faster than both prices, in general, and wages. In particular, the privatisation of previously communal housing (and also the sale of company housing) has created huge real estate corporations, some of which are also up to their mischief internationally.

The problem is particularly acute in Berlin, where the rise in rents has been particularly rapid as the city’s population started growing again from the mid-2000s and there is a strong and diverse tenants’ movement. This led to a citizen’s initiative for the expropriation of the big real estate companies. After success in the campaign’s first stage, activists collected signatures for the second stage and over 343,000 signed. Now the authorities are checking how many signatures are valid, including whether eligible voters signed more than once or signatures came from people not eligible to vote as the campaign encouraged Berliners without German citizenship to sign anyway.

If a minimum of 175,000 residents of Berlin eligible to vote signed this call a referendum will take place on 26 September, alongside the elections to the Berlin city government and the Bundestag. The campaign has already politicised and raised awareness of the property issue across Germany to a degree not seen in decades. The Berlin state government, in which the LINKE participates, had introduced a rent cap to stop the explosion of rents. However, this measure was declared unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court in April on the grounds that there was already a regulation at the federal level (which, however, is completely toothless). This ruling was grist to the mill of the expropriation campaign. Unfortunately, the main response of the LINKE to the ruling is to call for a rent cap at the federal level and to stir up illusions that this can be realised with the SPD and the Greens. In fact, the SPD and Greens in Berlin only agreed to a rent cap (which was watered down compared to the LINKE’s original proposals) at the state level because of the mass extra-parliamentary movement for the expropriation of the real estate corporations.

Youth

The Corona pandemic had a particularly big impact on young people. Numerous apprenticeships were eliminated. While capitalist production was hardly curtailed, education in schools and high schools was massively hampered by lockdown measures. Working class children and youth, who have fewer opportunities to study in peace at home, and do not have expensive computers, suffered particularly. The loss of jobs in various service sectors (catering, culture, etc.) particularly affected the part-time jobs that many students use to finance their studies. Young people suffered particularly from the restriction of leisure opportunities and social contacts due to the lockdown. In easing Corona measures, the priority for politicians seems to be to allow commercial recreational opportunities again, while non-commercial outdoor activities (where there is little risk of contagion) continue to be harassed and criminalised under the label of fighting Corona. This has already led to physical confrontations between large groups of youth and the police, to which the police and authorities are responding with further repression. Further conflicts are pre-programmed.

Interesting times

Four years ago, the months before the last federal elections were quite uneventful. It was clear to everyone that Merkel would continue to govern afterwards. The only open question was: with which coalition partner(s). This year we have to assume that the months before the elections will be much more thrilling and politicised and that there will not only be election campaigns but also social struggles. And after the elections, when the government – whatever its composition – will present the working class with the bill for last year’s Corona measures, there will be many more reasons for social struggles against a background of the continuing decline of the old parties.

 

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