|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
German election photo-finish
AFTER BEING neck-and-neck throughout polling day on 22 September, the social democratic SPD and Greens held onto their Red-Green coalition government but with a very small majority. The right-wing conservative CDU/CSU candidate Edmund Stoiber was stopped.
Many workers and youth voted for the SPD and Greens, despite their anti-working class policies, to stop what they saw as a shift to the right. The capitalists had indeed been promoting a change of government because they hoped Stoiber could speed up the attacks on workers’ living standards and rights. Many workers and youth were relieved that Stoiber was defeated but they will discover that they will be the losers under continuing Red-Green social cuts and privatisation.
Two months ago opinion polls had the conservative and liberal parties well ahead. This reflected four years of neo-liberal policies. The SPD and Greens had created the possibility for a comeback of former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s hated CDU/CSU, which had been thrown out of office in 1998 as the working class attempted to change the direction the country was going in. But nothing changed. Gerhard Schröder’s government continued where Kohl had left off and the SPD paid for this on election day. Compared with four years ago it lost 1,694,000 votes, mainly amongst industrial workers.
Its survival was mainly due to two issues: the summer floods in Eastern Germany and US war plans against Iraq. The government reacted quickly to the floods, successfully presenting itself as acting in the interests of the victims. Schröder was seen as doing something concrete to help the East, despite its record levels of unemployment and continuing depopulation.
And Schröder adopted an anti-war position and clashed with George W Bush’s administration. This was not because of a principled anti-militarism. The government has sent German troops abroad 17 times in the last four years and participated in the attacks on Serbia and Afghanistan. His rhetoric, rather, reflected the interests of the ruling class. German bosses fear that a regime change after a US-led war would lead to an Iraqi government obedient to the US, minimising the profit-making prospects of German companies in the country. They also want to counter US unilateralism. During the election Schröder went as far as to say that his government would not support a war even if it were led by the United Nations. This was a tactical manoeuvre to mobilise electoral support while accepting a significant worsening of US-German relations. From the point of view of the German capitalist class, however, he went too far. Schröder will not be able to maintain that position once a war has begun. This issue, or social and economic turmoil, could trigger a quick crisis in the new government which certainly will be unstable.
One important phenomenon is not reflected in the results: the growing alienation from the established parties. The mass of workers and young people did not vote enthusiastically for any party. The opinion polls over recent months were erratic. A few weeks before the elections 40% of the electorate said that they were undecided who to vote for. The whole campaign was very apolitical, concentrating on personalities. On domestic issues differences between the mainstream parties could only be seen with a magnifying glass.
The turnout fell from 82.3% to 79.1%, with 1,320,000 fewer votes cast than in 1998. The vote for smaller parties, including the far-right, was also lower – the far-right down from 4.4% to 1.8%. This was because a layer wanted to prevent a Stoiber-led government, but also many far-right voters supported Stoiber who has a record of racism. But while Stoiber was able to massively increase the vote of the CSU in his native Bavaria by 987,000 (27%), in the rest of Germany its sister party, the CDU, only increased its vote by 160,000. In nine of the 15 regional states outside Bavaria the CDU vote actually fell.
The Greens scored a large rise in their votes, gaining 808,000, at 8.6% their best ever score. This was in marked contrast to the falls they suffered in other elections held since they formed the Red-Green coalition. This increase was based on their opposition to war in Iraq, an increased environmental awareness following the floods, and because a layer of SPD supporters gave their second vote to the Greens. In Germany there are two votes: the ‘first’ for a constituency representative, the ‘second’ for a party list. The SPD’s ‘second’ vote was 1,571,000 lower than its ‘first’ and many of these went to the Greens.
The big loser was the left-wing Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS – the former state party in Stalinist East Germany). The PDS has a mass base in the East but is a very small force in the West. In the East it controls many councils and has entered two coalitions with the SPD at federal state level, where it has implemented cuts and privatisation. Especially in Berlin, the so-called ‘Red-Red’ coalition is implementing the sharpest attacks against working-class people in the city’s post-war history. A massive cuts package was announced just five days before the Bundestag (parliament) election! And the most prominent PDS leader, Gregor Gysi, has been forced to step down as senator for economic affairs in Berlin for using air miles accumulated on government business for his own personal travel.
The PDS was rewarded for these policies with an electoral collapse. It lost nearly 600,000 votes, failing to make the 5% hurdle which is the minimum to be included in the allocation of the proportional Bundestag seats. It won just two constituencies and therefore will only have two MPs. This is a disaster for the party and will probably lead to a deep crisis within the PDS. It is a setback for the left. Many who gave their vote to Schröder or the Greens to stop Stoiber will regret that there is no left-wing opposition in the Bundestag once the government starts further attacks on the working class and changes its course on the war.
This was not, however, a defeat for socialist policies, quite the contrary. The PDS is socialist in name only. Its electoral decline was a rejection of the right-wing policies of the leadership. Three hundred thousand former PDS voters did not vote at all, as workers and youth who had hoped for a genuine alternative got the same old and tired social democrat-type politics and turned their backs on the party.
A Green candidate, Christian Ströbele, proved that it is possible to win elections on a left-wing programme. He was put on the bottom of the party slate for proportional seats in Berlin, as punishment for his opposition to the Greens’ previous pro-war policies in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Yet he became the first ever Green candidate to win a constituency seat. He did this on the basis of a critical stand against the Greens’ leadership, even using the slogan ‘to vote Ströbele means to torture Fischer’ (the Greens’ leader and foreign minister). Ströbele claimed to be ‘social and a socialist’.
The move to the right by the PDS will probably continue. This poses the need for a new workers’ party even more sharply. The working class is without strong political representation and this absence will be felt more and more as the Red-Green coalition continues on its neo-liberal course. Out of the conflicts of the coming years will grow the idea that such a representation has to be formed.
With the economy stagnating, high-level unemployment, and huge pressure for cuts in public spending, the working class will have to fight back sooner or later. This year has already seen a number of strikes involving metalworkers, printers, bank and building workers and other sectors. The trade union leaders have tried to avoid open conflict with the Red-Green coalition and openly campaigned for a vote for them. But dissatisfaction is widespread amongst the trade union rank and file and the public-sector wage round later this year could see the first open conflict between the unions and the government. This is even more likely now as the government is under intense financial pressure because it cannot keep to the EU’s budget deficit criteria. The re-election of the Red-Green coalition can only speed up the breach between the unions and the SPD.
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