SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 139 - June 2010

Germany: regional elections shake the government

GERMANY’S conservative-liberal CDU-FDP coalition was shaken by the result in the regional elections in the country’s most populous federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), on 9 May. The ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost just over one million votes compared to the previous regional elections in 2005, and the CDU-FDP coalition lost its majority in the state. Furthermore, Die Linke (The Left party) broke through the 5% threshold and entered the NRW parliament for the first time, with eleven deputies.

The national government of Angela Merkel did everything possible to avoid such an outcome. The NRW elections are not only seen as a ‘mini-general election’, because of the state’s size, but the national government has now lost its majority in the second chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, where representatives of federal state governments have to agree legislation which affects the federal states. Merkel had postponed sharp attacks on social benefits and living standards. She manoeuvred in the euro crisis trying, but partly failing, to delay German participation in the Greek/euro bail-out package until after these elections.

This result increases the instability of the political situation and the increasingly unpopular national government despite the fact that there have been no big struggles of workers in the recent period. The underlying feeling of the mass of the population is that the government only serves big business. Alienation from all official institutions continues, reflected in a further drop in the turnout in NRW to 59.3%.

Completely losing sight of reality, the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) celebrated their second-worst result in the history of NRW (which was the party’s stronghold for decades) as a success! Why? Because opinion polls had predicted an even worse result and now there is no governmental alternative without SPD participation. In comparison to the 2005 regional elections, the SPD lost 383,000 votes, and its 34.5% was also down – and its lowest since 1954.

The Greens’ percentage doubled to 12.1%. Scandalously, this party can now profit from presenting itself as oppositionist and genuine. This is despite the fact that it was part of the national government (1998-2005) and participated in the most draconian attacks on the social benefit system and made rotten compromises with the nuclear power companies.

Die Linke celebrates a result which really should be a warning to the party. Compared to the regional elections in 2005, where the two parties which formed Die Linke stood separately and received 3.1% of the vote, this year’s result is an increase. But it has lost 354,000 voters compared to the general elections in September 2009 – 5.6% as opposed to 8.4%. According to opinion polls, compared to 2005, the party did not mobilise any non-voters and 20,000 people who voted for Die Linke’s forerunners in 2005 did not vote this time.

Polls also say that, when it comes to the question of credibility, Die Linke has the worst performance of all parties. This may have different reasons. But one element is the party’s participation in pro-capitalist coalition governments in other federal states which have made social cuts and privatisations. Also, in most local councils in NRW, Die Linke does not come across as being fundamentally different to the established parties.

Die Linke was unable to mobilise the most exploited and oppressed, the most angry and alienated in society because it presented itself as a ‘social corrective’, not as a fighting socialist party which wants fundamental change. Its main argument was that ‘only a vote for Die Linke can get rid of Rüttgers’ (the outgoing CDU prime minister). However, the closer election day came, the more the opinion polls showed that an SPD-Green majority seemed possible only if Die Linke did not make the 5% hurdle. So this argument boomeranged.

The NRW parliament now has no majority for any of the usual one big party-one small party coalitions (CDU-FDP, SPD-Greens, or SPD-FDP). As the CDU has a mere 5,900 votes more than the SPD, a grand coalition is difficult to form as the SPD does not really want to ‘serve’ under Jürgen Rüttgers. The FDP is unwilling to discuss a ‘traffic light coalition’ with the SPD and Greens. This led to talks between the SPD, Greens and Die Linke. At the time of writing, the SPD says that it will not form a government with Die Linke, claiming that the party is not reliable. This reflects the more left-wing character of Die Linke in NRW, and its declaration that it is not prepared to participate in social cuts or job losses.

While this is positive, the fact that Die Linke’s leadership in NRW entered talks and said that it could imagine a coalition government with the SPD and Greens was a mistake. It sowed illusions in these pro-capitalist parties and put the parliamentary questions to the top of the agenda. It would be a fatal mistake for Die Linke to join any pro-capitalist SPD-Green government that inevitably leads it to sharing responsibility for cuts at a certain stage.

Unfortunately, the forces in Die Linke which put forward a principled position are small and consist mainly of the members of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV – CWI Germany) and some others. Other left forces in Die Linke propagate the illusion that a ‘change of policy’ could be possible with the SPD and Greens. They have pursued a completely parliamentary orientation, with no public campaigning since election day. This reinforces the impression that Die Linke is not a fundamentally different party. A failure to campaign to explain its position with meetings, posters and leaflets, etc, leaves Die Linke disarmed in the face of media attacks.

Instead of talking solely about government participation, the leadership of Die Linke in NRW, which includes one member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, should have used the increased media coverage to explain a clear socialist approach, call on workers and youth to participate in the school and university strike on 9 June, and the two big 12 June demonstrations, under the slogan: ‘We will not pay for your crisis’. It should be calling on people to get organised in trade unions and Die Linke to take their fate into their own hands and fight the attacks by governments and big business.

At the same time, the party leadership could have proposed publicly a number of pro-worker and youth measures for the regional parliament to agree. This could have effectively challenged the SPD and Greens by putting pressure on them to support concrete measures in parliament in the interest of workers and young people. Die Linke should also say that it is prepared to deselect the sitting conservative and racist prime minister Rüttgers and, by this, not stop the formation of a SPD-Green minority government. Such a government could get the support of Die Linke MPs for any progressive measures it took. But Die Linke should not support it unconditionally or in an unprincipled way.

Die Linke’s future depends to a large extent on the question of whether the party continues to join pro-capitalist governments, as it has done in eastern Germany in the past. The potential exists to build a mass left-wing workers’ party, especially as governments on national, regional and local level will launch an avalanche of attacks in an attempt to make the masses pay for the capitalist crisis.

In such a situation, a socialist party must stand firmly on the side of those trying to resist such attacks and help them fight back, while providing a political alternative which goes beyond capitalism. A party which practices a policy of the ‘lesser evil’, and leads it to implement cuts, increase fees for council services and privatisation, will end up in conflict with the masses and lose support. The question of government participation is a life-and-death question for the building of a mass socialist party in Germany. The Marxists in and around SAV will do what they can to win support for a combative and anti-capitalist strategy in Die Linke.

Sascha Stanicic

Sozialistische Alternative (CWI Germany)


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