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Issue 33, December 1998

Germany after Kohl

    A victory for the 'new centre'?
    East-West division
    A new republic?
    What's left?
    A socialist programme
    A new workers' party

Kohl had to go. After 16 years of neo-liberal policies for the rich the working class took revenge through the ballot box on 27 September, opening up a new chapter in Germany's post-war history. SASCHA STANICIC, from the German section of the Committee for a Workers' International, SAV (Socialist Alternative), reports.

NEVER BEFORE IN the history of the German Federal Republic has a national government been completely changed through a general election. All previous changes in governments were due to one partner breaking a coalition and forming a new coalition with another party. Never before were there so many votes for the parties formally to the left of the traditional capitalist parties - the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The new coalition parties, Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, received 47.6% of the vote. Together with the vote for the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), 52.7% of the votes were to the left of the old government parties and the small fascist parties.

The ruling CDU received their worst result since 1949, losing over two million votes. For the first time since 1945, none of the traditional capitalist parties will be part of the national government. For the first time the Greens, who started as a radical left-wing movement only 18 years ago, will be part of a national government. Additionally, despite eight years of attempts by all other parties to marginalise them, the PDS, the only party with a socialist banner, got over the 5% hurdle and goes into parliament stronger than before.

These few facts show why this was a historic election and only the beginning of far-reaching changes in the political life of Germany.

  top     A victory for the 'new centre'?

THIS ELECTION WAS a clear defeat for the German capitalist class. The representatives of big business made it absolutely clear over the last year that they would have preferred to see a continuation of the old government or a 'grand coalition' of Social Democrats and conservatives rather than the incorporation of the Greens into a national government. But the mass of the working population, the unemployed and the youth, wanted Kohl to go. Through the ballot box they said 'No' to anti-working-class and neo-liberal policies.

The election was a defeat for Kohl and his programme rather than positive support for the new chancellor Schröder and his SPD. But this result did not come out of the blue. It was the final point of a development which began with mass protests against the government's austerity programme, which in June 1996 brought half a million trade unionists to Bonn in the biggest trade union demonstration since 1945. Since then we have seen spontaneous strike actions by car workers against the reduction of sick pay in autumn 1996 and militant mass protests by miners, building workers and steel workers against unemployment in spring 1997. There were also mass protests of mainly youth against the transportation of nuclear waste and, at the end of 1997, a mass strike movement of hundreds of thousands of university students. This year saw the beginnings of a movement of the unemployed with several 'days of action', with up to 60,000 unemployed participating. Especially during the workers' protests, the anger and rage was directed against Kohl. 'Kohl has to go' became the main slogan of the demonstrations.

The Socialist Alternative (SAV) already said then that this was the beginning of the end of the Kohl era. It was most likely that Germany would join Britain, France and other countries which had got rid of their conservative governments. This proved to be correct. The workers' movements of 1996 and 1997, the growing anger and radicalisation amongst the working masses, found its reflection in the September 1998 general election.

  Our assessment of the politics and the character of the Social Democratic Party has also been confirmed. For decades it had been a mass workers' party with a pro-capitalist, bourgeois leadership but now the party has gone through a qualitative step to the right. Just like New Labour, it openly and completely supports the capitalist market economy - there is no longer a socialist wing in the party and its links to the working class are much less strong than in the 1970s or 1980s.

This was reflected during the election campaign. There was little polarisation in the election debates, as the programmes of the old government parties and the SPD do not qualitatively differ from each other. And there was hardly any enthusiasm for Schröder and the SPD. Now, after the elections, there is a lot of scepticism. Most people say 'give them a chance to make things better', but they do not really believe in things getting better.

Schröder, the German Tony Blair, is the most right-wing and neo-liberal amongst the Social Democrat leaders. He says that the election victory was the result of the SPD's shift to the right, enabling it to win what he calls the 'new centre' of society - by this he means small entrepreneurs, well-paid administrative or state employees, and so on. Immediately after the elections Schröder declared that he would not disappoint this 'new centre', which means that policies for the working class will come last.

Actually the SPD leadership is trying to create a myth here which they can use within the party to argue for right-wing policies. In reality, the election victory was based on the way the working class voted. The SPD won back its traditional voters in its former strongholds - 49% of blue-collar workers and 42% of white-collar workers voted SPD. The mood within the working class was decisive in determining the election result, not the so-called 'new centre'.

  top     East-West division

EIGHT YEARS AFTER the incorporation of the former Stalinist East Germany into the capitalist West, the formally united country still suffers from many divisions between the East and the West.

In many respects, there are two peoples within one nation. There is a specific 'Eastern' consciousness. Many East German workers and unemployed regard themselves as second-class citizens. They still earn lower wages and have to work longer hours than in the West, while the unemployment rate in the East is much higher.

West German companies took over the privatised factories in the East, dictated mass redundancies, and closed many factories down completely. East Germans are hardly represented in the political tops of the state. They were especially frustrated with the Kohl government because all the promises from 1990 of prosperity and a growing economy turned out to be hollow.

As a result, there are two different political situations in Germany today and this was shown in the election results. In the East the combined vote of the CDU and FDP was only 31.2%, while the SPD, Greens and PDS received a combined 60.3%, with the PDS reaching 19.5%. This also reflects the fact that the political consciousness of the East German working class is further developed than in the West, with a big part of the population having a positive attitude towards socialism. In a 1997 opinion poll 68% of East Germans said that 'socialism is a good thing which just was implemented badly', while 22% have a 'bad opinion of the economic system of the Federal Republic of Germany'.

  top     A new republic?

'THE NEW REPUBLIC' was how one prominent news magazine described the new government which emerged from the elections. But will there really be something new in a Germany led by Schröder and the right-wing Green, Joschka Fischer? Some people, especially young people, hope that the Greens will exercise a pressure from the left on the SPD. But the contrary will be the case. The Greens are a middle-class based liberal party. They have lost the connection to the social movements, especially the ecological and peace movements from the late 1970s and early 1980s, where the party had its original roots.

On some issues such as immigrants, drugs, women, and security they still have more progressive positions than the SPD, but on social and economic questions they are a purely liberal party which stands to the right of many SPD politicians. For example, the Greens argue for a lower maximum tax rate for the rich than the SPD and also argue for lower pensions. They have no connection to the working class or the trade unions, and no pressure can be exercised from the working class on the Greens as they do not at all rely on workers.

The Greens will more and more shift to the right and try to win backing from traditional supporters of the FDP. Fischer will probably become Foreign Secretary and he insists that there will be a continuation of present foreign policy. The Greens support German membership of NATO and will accept German troops being sent to Yugoslavia.

The 'Red-Green' republic will be a capitalist republic with a capitalist government, which will serve the interests of the capitalist class. This does not mean, however, that they will simply carry on with every aspect of Kohl's policy. They will change the tone of the government's propaganda and will try to create the impression that this government will be more sensitive to the problems of ordinary people. They will also implement a few reforms in the next few months. But these will not be a real reversal of 16 years of Kohl's policy and with the development of an economic crisis the government will quickly move over to cuts in social spending.

  The 'Red-Green' leaders promise a jobs programme for youth. But, as in France, it is not likely to mean proper apprenticeships for young people, but low-paid jobs which offer no future for youth. They also promised to re-introduce 100% sick pay and it is possible that they will stick to that. In reality, however, this is not a big deal as over three-quartersof German workers retained their 100% sick pay entitlement as a result of the trade union struggles that erupted after the Kohl government had cut it to 80%.

It is also possible that some reforms in immigration politics will be implemented, making it easier for immigrants to get German citizenship, and probably introducing a law giving the right to have dual citizenship.

Some early measures like this (and before the onset of an economic recession) can lead to a few illusions and a certain honeymoon period for the new government. On the other side, the new government does not want to raise any expectations. Immediately after they were elected, SPD and Green leaders started saying that the state finances are much worse than they expected and that only measures 'which can be financed' will be introduced. Economic developments will be decisive for the kind of politics a Schröder administration will introduce.

Given the world economic situation, it has become clear that within the next twelve to eighteen months a world-wide slump will develop. The German economy is highly dependent on exports. The growth rates of the last recent years were completely based on exports, as domestic consumption fell. An international recession will hit Germany even harder because of the role exports play in its economy. There are other signs pointing to a fall in the growth rate. In August, orders were the lowest for a year and real industrial production was only 1% stronger than last year. Forecasts for GDP growth were reduced to 2% for this year.

If the new Red-Green government is confronted with an economic downturn within the next year, which is likely, they will move over to attacks on the working class which will be even sharper than all the attacks carried through under the Kohl government. We will then see a further growth of mass unemployment. The Kohl administration had created short-term job programmes just before the election to lower the unemployment figures. Once these programmes run out unemployment figures will grow again anyway. But a downturn will mean mass redundancies and factory closures. Just as structural mass unemployment jumped during the recessions in 1974/75 and 1981/82, the next economic crisis will see overall unemployment increase to probably over five million. Given the fact that with a recession state finances will decline, and the new government wants to stick to the Maastricht criteria, this is a recipe for new austerity programmes and cuts in social services, workers' rights, and education.

  One result of the election is that the political system will be more in flux. In East Germany the FDP and the Greens hardly exist. In the traditional bourgeois, capitalist parties there has been one resignation after another of top politicians. Kohl has resigned as chair of the Christian Democratic Union, the former finance secretary, Theo Waigel, has quit from his position as chair of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, and many others have gone as well.

The old and new bourgeois leaders try to present these developments as normal changes following electoral defeat, but they mark the beginning of a deep crisis of the capitalist parties and bourgeois institutions. Just as in Britain The Sun recently called the Tories an 'ex-party', the same could be said about the FDP. Despite being small, the FDP has always played a major strategic role for the ruling class. It was 'the small party of big business' and was constantly part of the government (and through that a direct representative of the capitalists) since 1969. This party has lost its role now, and could easily disintegrate within the next few years, especially as the Greens are trying to win over large parts of the FDP's traditional base.

Unlike Austria, Belgium or France, there is currently no strong far-right party in Germany. The three main fascist parties failed to get into parliament (see box), and attempts to create a German-style nationalist party like Haider's FPÖ in Austria have failed so far. However, the objective conditions pose the danger of the emergence of such a party. The defeat of the traditional bourgeois parties in the general elections will speed up this process. New formations on the right can emerge. There is a far-right wing within the FDP, there are other fascist or semi-fascist organisations and groups which seek to unite the 'respectable' far-right, and there also is the Bavarian based Christian Social Union which up to now was in an alliance with the Christian Democratic Union. Already there are voices within the CSU to break with the CDU. It is not even ruled out that the CSU will try to 'go national' in the future.

This would mean that the Social Democracy for the next period will become the main party for the German capitalist class, just as New Labour has become the main party for the British bosses. Nevertheless it will open up the political situation in Germany and will create even bigger political instability than in recent years.

  top     What's left?

GERMANY'S MAIN left-wing party is the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS). In East Germany this former Stalinist-state party is now a mass reformist party with almost 100,000 members. In the East the PDS is represented in all federal state parliaments and local councils, and received 19.5% of the vote in the general election. In West Germany however the PDS up to now has failed to build a strong and functioning party structure. There it has around 2,000 members, has no members in any federal state parliament and only a handful of councillors, and received only 1.1% of the vote.

Yet the PDS was one of the great winners of the elections. Winning 447,600 more votes than in 1994, 92,000 of those in West Germany, the PDS is the only mass party which speaks out for democratic socialism. Its support reflects that there are many workers and youth, especially in the East, who are looking for an alternative to the left of the Red-Green coalition. But the reality of the party is that it is rapidly shifting to the right and that it is not a party which is fighting for socialist change.

The PDS leadership, just before the elections, made clear that it supports the market economy and the current German constitution. In East Germany the PDS holds leading positions in many local councils, and in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt they support a SPD minority government. In many councils they have started to support privatisation and other social cuts - in Saxony-Anhalt they voted in favour of a budget which led to wage cuts in the public sector.

At the same time, the PDS does not mobilise its membership and supporters to fight back against the injustices of capitalist society. While the SPD is becoming a completely capitalist, bourgeois party, the PDS is on its way to becoming a 'normal' social democratic party. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the SPD and PDS won the federal state elections held on the same day as the general election. Now the PDS is trying to get the SPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to form what would be the first ever coalition government between them. If this happens it will accelerate the development to the right of the PDS.

  But still, the PDS will remain the only left-wing opposition party nationally and the only viable electoral alternative to the Red-Green government and the right-wing bourgeois parties. Its electoral success in the general election means a stabilisation of the PDS and, although it is very weak in the West, it will become more and more a national political factor. The PDS is more accepted in the West now and during the next few years it will have the opportunity to make electoral progress at council and federal state level.
  top     A socialist programme

GIVEN THE CHANGE of government, revolutionary socialists cannot simply continue with their previous propaganda, merely substituting 'Schröder' for 'Kohl'. We have to acknowledge that amongst the mass of the working class the new government will be given a chance for a few months. Unlike France after the success of Jospin, there will not immediately be mass workers' demonstrations to put the new government under pressure.

Sections of workers, however, may take the opportunity to press their demands and we must begin to build a movement in opposition to the Red-Green government's pro-capitalist policies. SAV argues that nothing will change if the working class, the trade unions, and the youth, do not fight for changes, and we call for action to put pressure on the new government. We say that a Schröder government could reverse the 16 years of cuts in social spending, that it could tax the rich, create jobs and services, but that it will not do that as its policies are based on the acceptance of the dictatorship of the market, just as Kohl's policies were.

We call for a reversal of the lowering of taxes for the rich, a reversal of prescription charges, an end to job losses in the public sector, the stopping of deportations, a halt to expensive military projects and money for childcare - measures which could be implemented immediately by a government which reflected the interests of the mass of the population.

We also oppose the 'Alliance for Jobs', which is a key project of the new government. This originally was an idea of the trade union leadership to bring together trade unions, bosses' associations and the state to negotiate about the creation of jobs. In 1996 the bosses left the talks as they wanted to put pressure on the Kohl government to implement even sharper attacks on the working class. Now the new government wants to re-establish this 'alliance' as a way of ensuring that the trade union leaders control their members. But such talks can only serve the bosses' interests because a 'joint approach' means accepting the logic of the capitalist economy.

  The task of socialists in the present situation is to warn about the character of the new government and to try to organise pressure on it wherever possible. But also we have to explain that there can be no solution to the big social problems that exist within the limits of a capitalist market economy. With the development of a world downturn and attacks from a Red-Green government, many workers and youth will be prepared to struggle and will raise political questions. Already there is much alienation from the institutions of the capitalist state and the political parties. This will develop into opposition against capitalism. Within a few years, socialism can be back on the agenda and it will be hundreds of thousands of workers and youth who will discuss the ideas of socialism again.
  top     A new workers' party

THIS PROCESS OF class struggles and the beginning of a debate about a solution to the problems, will give rise to the idea that a new party of working people and youth has to be built. The SAV has campaigned for the idea of a new workers' party for two years now. Our main slogan in this year's election campaign was 'No to politics for banks and big business! Kohl has to go - build a new workers' party'. Although we are small, we urged everyone to join our party as the only fighting socialist party.

With the development of mass movements, however, new formations will develop, which we will support as long as they are genuine independent workers' formations and as long as they principally fight for the interests of the working class. Although the exact course of how such a new formation will develop can not be mapped out in advance, it is unlikely that the PDS as a whole will gain strength in West Germany and turn into such a workers' party, because the PDS leadership is shifting the party further to the right. But it is not ruled out that the more left-wing parts of the PDS will play a role in such a development.

However, the main role will be played by those activists who will become involved in political and especially trade union activity in the course of the next months and years. Within the trade unions we actively support the building of left-wing opposition currents as an alternative to the present trade union leadership.

Out of such left-wing trade union currents, possible splits from the PDS and even the Greens, and the future social movements, a new workers' party will develop over the years which will fundamentally change the political landscape of Germany.

  Fascist threat

THE THREE MAIN fascist parties which stood in the general election - the Republicans, the German Peoples' Union (DVU) and the National Democratic Party (NPD) - suffered a bad result. Even their combined vote fell under the 5% barrier. After the DVU's spectacular success in the federal-state elections in Saxony-Anhalt in spring this year (where they received 12.9%) this shows that their base is very volatile. At the same time, the result does not mean a weakening of the fascists - it was the highest combined far-right vote in a general election since 1945. The Nazi NPD was especially able to build its party structures and recruit many young people in East Germany.

For the future this poses the question whether there could be attempts to unite the three fascist parties. Given the character of their leaderships where each party leader would want to be the new 'Führer', however, this is not at all likely.

The NPD, which unites many of the violent Nazi youth, may possibly change its strategy from an orientation towards parliamentary elections to more violent actions again, aiming to become the dominating force in the streets. Anti-fascist activity will not be less important or less urgent after the September elections.

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