SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 173 November 2013

Merkel re-elected but unstable times lie ahead

Despite the electoral success of Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU (the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria), Germany’s recent general election reflected an alienation of big parts of the population from the established parties and the institutions of capitalist democracy. Given the expected intensification of the euro crisis and the worldwide economic slowdown, the new government will be confronted with growing instability, and attacks on the living standards of working people will come back onto the agenda.

The increase in votes for the CDU/CSU cannot distract from the fact that the ‘black and yellow’ coalition of CDU/CSU and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) was voted out of office and lost, between them, 735,000 votes. This has been put into the back of public perceptions by Merkel’s triumph of nearly securing an absolute majority in the Bundestag (national parliament), but will have consequences for future developments in Germany.

The FDP was regarded for more than 60 years as the capitalists’ pressure group in the form of a political party. It was always the most vocal in demanding attacks on the living standards and rights of the working class. Its failure in the 2013 elections represents a serious problem for the capitalist class. It is a consequence of the fact that the FDP could less and less hide its openly neoliberal character behind pseudo-civil rights propaganda. The FDP was held responsible by many people for the social polarisation in German society.

When it became clear that this ‘small party of big capital’ had not made it back into the Bundestag for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, many people were very joyful. Its future is an open question now. The party has only weak representation in federal state parliaments and governments. Nonetheless, it is not ruled out that the FDP will move in a more national-liberal direction, taking on a more right-wing populist position to survive.

Merkel’s increase in votes reflects the relative economic stability in a country which is surrounded by states which are falling further into the euro crisis. She also made some small concessions, like abolishing fees for a doctor’s appointment. "The Germans voted for security", is how one TV commentator explained the election result. This is true insofar as the increase of votes for the CDU/CSU reflects a feeling among many people that Merkel has prevented the worst happening in a time of international economic crisis. But the result does not stand for positive support, let alone any euphoria, for Merkel. An indication that the political mood is different when it comes to concrete political questions was shown in a referendum that took place in Hamburg on the same day as the general election; a narrow majority in the city voted for re-nationalisation of the local electricity network.

Merkel’s victory is only one side of the election result. The other side is that never before has such a big part of the electorate not been represented in the parliament at all. The turnout only rose marginally from the historic low of 70.8% during the last federal elections to 71.5% this year, which is the second lowest in Germany’s post-1945 history. More than 15% of the votes cast went to parties which did not make the five per cent of the national vote threshold to enter parliament. Never before have so few votes – 43% – gone to form a government. This is only about 30% of the electorate. Even a ‘grand coalition’ government will, in regard to the overall population, only represent a minority government. Well over 40% of the electorate, those who abstained or voted for small parties, are not represented at all in the Bundestag.

There have been big swings in elections over recent years. This is a reflection of the loosened ties of voters to political parties. Big election successes, like those of the FDP and the Greens in the past, are quickly forgotten and the election scene remains volatile.

Merkel managed to keep the issue of the euro crisis out of the election campaign. But the success of the ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) – a right-wing party calling for an end to the euro currency – shows (alongside the potential for protest votes) that this issue is important for a part of the population. This issue will grow. Given this background, it was a mistake of Die Linke (The Left) not to emphasise more in its election campaign the party’s rejection of the bank rescue packages.

The fact that Die Linke also lost many votes to AfD must be seen as a warning. Even though the future of AfD is open, it is also possible that it will not be a temporary phenomenon. It has occupied a political space which will get more important given the likelihood of an intensification of the euro crisis. It was successful in building a nationwide party organisation and it has money. The AfD was also quite skilful in avoiding an aggressive nationalist or racist image, while it still managed to mobilise far-right voters. The party has a good chance, with an increased vote, to get into the European parliament in next year’s euro elections. The AfD could also seize on growing euro-scepticism, which will most likely keep growing, especially if Die Linke does not formulate a clear left-wing, internationalist critique of the euro crisis.

Wages, working conditions and pensions were the most important issues for voters. This looks paradoxical given that the CDU/CSU is a party of big business standing against a legal minimum wage and for maintaining the increased retirement age of 67. Given the choice between the leaders of the main parties, many people may have concluded that Merkel is better able than other political leaders to prevent a ‘euro emergency’ producing a social crisis in Germany.

This was linked to the fact that the SPD and Greens did not put forward any alternative. Their attempt to present themselves, in this election, as more interested in social issues and justice, and more left-wing, was not taken seriously by many. Their introduction of the neo-liberal ‘Agenda 2010’, in 2003, has not been forgotten or forgiven by many people.

The Greens’ result shows how they have become a bourgeois, middle-class party. But the importance of issues like wages, working conditions and pensions in the popular consciousness of working people, also reflects the potential for trade union and social struggles. This is why the CDU/CSU success stands on thin ice. The new government will plan to make new cuts and to carry out privatisation programmes and, sooner or later, the popular mood can turn against it.

On the left, the leadership of Die Linke was satisfied with its result and emphasised that the party is now the third strongest force in the country. Looking at it from the perspective of the disastrous opinion poll ratings the party was getting just one year ago, the party has been stabilised and has regained support. This is not only because the inner-party battles have been stopped for the time being.

Under the new leadership of Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping there has been an increased orientation of the party towards social movements and trade union battles. This motivated a layer of party activists to get more involved. Clear statements on party placards helped create a very active election campaign by the rank and file. Five hundred new members joined up during the course of the campaign. This shows that, despite the present objective situation, there is potential for the strengthening of the party.

But the fact that Die Linke lost more than 1.4 million voters in comparison to the 2009 elections (also getting less than its 2005 score), and that it could not attract people who usually do not vote and even lost voters to the AfD, shows how weak the party’s roots are in working-class communities. Furthermore, Die Linke’s credibility is repeatedly put into question because of the party’s on-going involvement in coalition governments on a regional level and by the permanent offers to join a national coalition by some of the party leadership.

Now Die Linke has been given another chance, the question is can it seize the opportunities as they open up? If there is to be a grand coalition in which the SPD sooner or later will be responsible for social cuts, Die Linke will be in a good position to increase its profile as an anti-capitalist opposition. But to be strengthened in such a situation, the party has to become a fighting force and drop its orientation towards forming coalition governments with the SPD and Greens.

It is likely that the struggles within Die Linke will grow. Next year will see several federal state elections in eastern Germany, which is currently Die Linke’s strongest base, and where the question of forming coalition governments with the SPD will be again posed concretely. At present, Die Linke is in coalition with the SPD in the eastern state of Brandenburg.

Some from the right wing of Die Linke, including the leader of the parliamentary group, Gregor Gysi, published a book recently which puts into question the party’s principle of rejecting all deployments of German troops abroad (because, without dropping this position, participation in a government on a national level is impossible). This could become another focus of debate and division within Die Linke. Gysi personally has been strengthened by his performance in the election campaign and he will try to use this against the more anti-capitalist elements in the party, which are mainly based in western Germany.

The next four years in Germany will not be like the last three years, a time of economic recovery after a deep crisis. Instead, it will be marked by a growing economic destabilisation and new crises. Every new government in Europe will be under pressure to make the working class pay for the crisis of the capitalist system. Out of this mass struggles and movements can develop. Die Linke can grow strong out of such a development if the party stands firm on the side of such movements.

Sascha Stanicic, Sozialistische Alternative (CWI in Germany)

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