SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

German states reject the grand coalition

THE 17 September regional elections in the states of Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern dramatically illustrated the increasing unpopularity of all the governing parties. They showed the possibilities of building a fighting, left opposition clearly campaigning against the cuts. But they were also another warning of how neo-fascists can exploit the absence of any left alternative.

The continued decline of the old major parties has sparked off renewed debate on their future, a debate that is also beginning to hang over the LeftParty.PDS (L.PDS, which arose from the former East German Stalinist state party). At the same time, the gains for the Berlin WASG on the left, and neo-fascists on the right, are shaping the national discussions.

In Berlin, tens of thousands voted against social and wage cuts in elections to the city’s parliament, the Abgeordnethaus. Fighting on a clear anti-cuts platform, the Berlin WASG (Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice), in its first ever election campaign, won over 52,000 constituency votes, 3.8% of the Berlin total, despite standing in only 80% of the constituencies. The highest WASG constituency vote was over 10%. In the second ballot for regional party lists, WASG won over 40,000 votes, 2.9%, below the 5% needed to be elected into the Abgeordnethaus.

The size of this vote was particularly striking as the national leadership of the WASG did not support its Berlin region. Instead, it backed the L.PDS, despite its participation for the last five years in a cut-making coalition with the SPD (Social Democrats). It took a big struggle, in which members of Socialist Alternative (SAV – CWI in Germany) played a prominent part, to even ensure that the Berlin WASG could stand at all. A leader of SAV, Lucy Redler, was number one on the WASG list. Fourteen WASG members, including three from SAV, were elected onto seven of Berlin’s twelve district councils, where winning 3% of the vote was necessary.

In both states, Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered their worst-ever results, a sign of the rapid fall in popularity of the less than one-year-old Federal government. In Berlin, the CDU fell from 385,692 in 2001 to 293,976; in Mecklenburg, Merkel’s home state, from 304,125 in 2002 to 235,335. The SPD, the CDU’s national coalition partners, also suffered. In Mecklenburg, the SPD plunged from 394,118 to 247,291; in Berlin, despite a small gain in its share of the poll, its actual vote dropped from 481,772 to 423,912.

Both states saw turnout drop by around 10% to their lowest ever. The Greens in Berlin and the socially ‘liberal’ (but economically ‘neo-liberal’) FDP in Mecklenburg increased their vote. This was because neither is in government nationally or in these regional states, but there was no great enthusiasm for either party.

Before these elections, Berlin and Mecklenburg had been ruled by SPD-L.PDS coalitions that pursued severe social and actual wage cuts. The eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is probably the poorest in Germany. It has lost over 10% of its population since re-unification and has 18.2% unemployment, the highest in Germany’s 16 regional states. Berlin is second-highest with 17.4%.

In Mecklenburg, where the SPD-L.PDS coalition has governed since 1998, the SPD suffered most this time, its vote dropping from 394,118 (40.6%) in 2002 to 247,291 (30.2%). While the L.PDS saw a small increase in percentage terms (16.4% to 16.8%), its vote fell from 159,065 to 137,248. However, the L.PDS’s big crash took place between 1998 and 2002 when it slumped from 371,885 (34.4%) to 159,065. So, in eight years its vote in Mecklenburg has fallen by nearly two-thirds.

In Berlin, the SPD did not lose so much, partly because of its slightly radical sounding local leader, Klaus Wowereit. This is despite the fact that in the election he criticised the CDU for not being a ‘driving force’ for cuts when it ran Berlin! But the L.PDS, suffered massively. Its vote fell from 366,292 (22.6%), in 2001 to around 186,000 (13.4%). Many of those who voted for the SPD and L.PDS only did so to keep out the openly right-wing parties and the far-right.

The support of Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD leader who is now the WASG leader, for the Berlin L.PDS has made it more difficult to build a large anti-cuts alternative. Lafontaine and others in the WASG will be questioned to justify their support for a L.PDS leadership that saw its vote in its east Berlin heartland slump from 297,251 (47.6%) in 2001 to just over 150,000 (28%). This massive defeat, and the Berlin WASG’s 52,000 votes, should be the starting point for a real discussion on the future of the left in Germany, particularly next year’s proposed fusion between the L.PDS and WASG. The potential for an anti-cuts movement was to be seen also in the over 30,000-vote jump in Berlin for ‘Die Grauen’ (Grey Panthers), a party representing pensioners, who have been hit significantly by cuts.

This election took place against the background of falling popularity of the national grand coalition of the Christian and Social Democrats that raises questions about how long it will last. September’s Deutschlandtrend opinion poll showed national support for the Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) at 34% and the SPD at 28%, compared with their respective votes in the September 2005 general election of 40.8% and 38.4%.

The question is how can the dissatisfaction and anger be expressed? Trade union leaders have finally announced the details of five regional protest demonstrations on 21 October. This is a welcome step forward, but the DGB trade union federation has stated that it is opposed to some government policies, but not to the government itself. Clearly, it is not planning to lead a serious campaign. This puts more responsibility on activists and the left to build from below as was done for the 100,000-strong 1 November 2003 protest that helped open the way for the WASG’s formation in 2004.

In Berlin, WASG offered a fighting alternative to many. But in Mecklenburg, the WASG’s very small size meant that the neo-fascist NPD could exploit the anger against the established parties. The massive jump in the NPD’s Mecklenburg vote from 7,718 (0.8%) in 2002 to 59,674 (7.3%) is a warning, particularly its success in winning 17% of the youth vote compared with the L.PDS’s 13%. Mecklenburg is now the third region with the far-right in parliament. In 2004, the NPD won 9.2% in Sachsen, and its ally, the DVU, was re-elected to Brandenburg’s state parliament with 6.1%. While the NPD doubled its vote in Berlin to 35,162, this was less than the WASG’s total.

This is why what happens next is so important. Despite the fact that the Berlin WASG was not able to get more than 5%, the over 52,000 votes are a basis for future struggles against the ruling class’s onslaught and for an alternative to the misery of capitalism.

Despite some questioning in its ranks, Berlin’s L.PDS leaders have learnt nothing. The day after the election, its executive voted by 13-1 to try to continue the ‘cuts coalition’ with the SPD. With the national drive to quickly merge WASG and L.PDS, this poses difficult questions for the Berlin WASG. The tens of thousands of supporters it has already won for its stand against cuts, clearly would be lost if it was swallowed up by the pro-cuts Berlin L.PDS sitting in a coalition. Such a merger would mean either abandoning a real fight or a fairly rapid de-merger.

WASG and L.PDS leaders want to quickly establish a merged party as a finished project with a programme that would, despite a mention of ‘democratic socialism’, allow participation in administrations that make cuts and other attacks. The day after these elections, Lafontaine said that the "unpopular decisions" that the Berlin L.PDS made while in the coalition were "fundamentally largely naturally correct". If this is the basis upon which a new party is formed, then the Berlin WASG may be forced to stand alone.

The lessons of these elections, the step forward for the Berlin WASG and the dramatic fall in the L.PDS support, need to be properly discussed as the WASG, along with the rest of the left, works out its programme and strategy. In this debate, SAV will explain the importance of combining a determined fight to defend and improve living standards with socialist policies that can provide a way out of the morass of capitalism. This will not be an abstract academic discussion. It will be linked to how to concretely build a movement against the ruling class’s attacks that can also give a socialist vision of the future.

Robert Bechert


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