SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 213 November 2017

Germany’s new phase of instability

The result of the German general election on 24 September was nothing less than a political earthquake. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), an openly racist, right-populist party just over four years old, won seats in parliament, the Bundestag. This is a shocking result for many people and a warning for the future. SASCHA STANIČIĆ (Sozialistische Alternative, CWI Germany) writes.

The fact that a continuation of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship was not seriously challenged, alongside the tactic of conducting a deliberately restrained election campaign, tended to obscure the deep social processes. These can be expressed in a number of ways: a shift away from the traditional parties in the grand coalition (the conservative CDU/CSU, and the Social Democrats, SPD); a palpable sense of injustice common across the country; growing uncertainty and anxiety about a variety of issues whipped up by the media – refugees, Islam and national security. These have all arisen in the context of continued and growing social polarisation.

The general election represents a parliamentary shift to the right for which the majority of society – workers, unemployed, migrants, women, trade unionists – will pay a bitter price in the next four years. The return of the FDP (Liberals) to parliament – and conceivably to government – will place the interests of the employers even higher up the agenda. This could mean another increase in the retirement age, more ‘flexible’ working hours, attacks on strike laws, etc.

At the same time, the AfD will put the next German government under pressure from the right and make capital out of its new position. The chair of the right-wing Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), Horst Seehofer, made it clear on election night that he would give way to this in order to ‘close the right flank’. Yet Bavaria shows that even when right-wing policies are pursed by the established parties, the AfD vote was not affected. The CSU has often taken a right-populist position, attacking refugees and migration, but it achieved its worst ever result against the AfD.

The trade unions and Die Linke (The Left party) must prepare for hard battles in the communities and workplaces, and not allow themselves to be pushed onto the defensive. From day one of the new government, they must raise their own clear demands and mobilise around them. It is impossible to deny the appeal that demands such as rent reductions, restricting flexible and agency staffing, developing health and education services, and ending precarious employment, has for a broad majority of the working class. But also that the trade unions and Die Linke have failed to mobilise this potential for struggle.

Tom Strohschneider, commenting in the left daily Neues Deutschland, said that considerably more people had declared themselves to be leftists than was indicated by the number of votes for the so-called left/centre ground. This suggests two things: we can identify a process of social polarisation (and not simply a shift to the right) which was not reflected in the election; and that the potential for social movements and resistance from the left is certainly present.

Capitalist credibility crisis

The election results were a slap in the face for the grand coalition. The CDU, CSU and SPD each experienced historic lows. At first sight this seems to contradict surveys which showed that most people were relatively satisfied with the state of the economy and the relatively high approval of Merkel, herself a contentious figure. People’s so-called satisfaction with their own economic situation has to be viewed with scepticism in view of the dramatic growth of precarious working conditions and the fact that 40% of the population have a lower income than they had 20 years ago. Above all, it was the SPD that was punished, yet again, for not offering even a remnant of its traditional social democratic policies.

Ironically, the FDP could profit from its four-year absence from parliament as this allowed the electorate to forget the front-line role it played in bringing about the current social conditions. The FDP’s reinvention had an effect among its traditional supporters: small companies, management and higher civil servants. Many of them voted FDP instead of CDU/CSU and thus undermined the grand coalition. The return of the ‘small party of big capital’ brought tears of joy to the large shareholders, hedge fund managers and employers. They feel they have consistent representatives back in the Bundestag – who, unlike the CDU/CSU and SPD, do not have to take account of working-class votes (even though these parties only pay lip service to them).

The results also show that the loss of credibility suffered by the institutions of capitalist society over many years has continued to deepen. It has now reached this political turning point. For the first time in decades there are six parties (seven, if you count the CSU as an independent party) in the Bundestag, and one of them is clearly to the right of the CDU/CSU.

The turnout also expresses disenchantment with parliamentary politics – a quarter of the electorate stayed at home. The increase in turnout from 71.5% to 76.2% cannot disguise the fact that the party of the non-voters is yet again the second strongest, larger than it was in the 1990s. This heralds a new phase of political instability, apparent on election day, as the possibility of new elections could not be excluded in the event that a ‘Jamaican’ coalition of the CDU/CSU (black), FDP (yellow) and Green Party cannot be formed.

The growing instability was also reflected in the state elections in Lower Saxony on 15 October. Here, the SPD gained votes while the CDU, Liberals and Greens all lost. The AfD made it into the state parliament with 6.2%. It seems that no election result can be foreseen in Germany anymore.

The AfD threat

The AfD performed better than most people had expected in the weeks and months running up to polling day. Particularly in eastern Germany it mobilised a large proportion of protest voters, although the issue of refugees and migration is only one factor contributing to the success of the right-populists. Xenophobia or concerns about the social consequences of migration are unquestionably decisive issues for most AfD voters. However, its advance cannot be solely reduced to this issue. Surveys suggest that 60% of AfD voters did not vote out of political conviction. Rather, they did so in order to set an example to the established politicians who are becoming more aloof, and who ignore the social interests of the people.

With the AfD entering the Bundestag, Germany has joined the growing club of European countries in which right-populist parties are represented in parliament. Right-wing populism is a symptom of crisis in capitalist society, with all the attendant social consequences and uncertainties that affect broad swathes of the working class and middle class. The AfD grew in strength because the SPD has ceased to be a political voice for working-class interests (within the framework of capitalist relations), and because the trade unions and Die Linke have offered no credible, fighting alternative to the bourgeois establishment.

Of course, the rise of the AfD and its electoral success has been ably assisted by the media. Unprecedented coverage and one talk show after another made migration and the deportation of refugees the number one topic. The AfD unquestionably gained support as a result. Yet it is also true that 87% of voters did not vote for the AfD. This is all the more significant because sympathy for the AfD across the wider population has fallen, although it is still capable of mobilising its electoral base.

The AfD seats in the Bundestag will not only change what happens in parliament, they will alter political debate and the political climate. This is because the party’s success will embolden the extreme nationalists and neo-fascists who are on its periphery. Despite all reassurances, a new government will apply the thumb screws to refugees. It will concede to the pressure of the AfD and introduce further tough amendments to asylum laws and pursue more brutal deportations, etc. The CDU and CSU have already agreed to limit migration to 200,000 per year. This will be a controversial issue, however, in the coalition talks with the Greens and Liberals.

Nonetheless, the AfD is not a stable phenomenon. The decision announced on the day after the election by Frauke Petry (AfD’s former chairwoman) to leave the party, and a number of defections since then, show the potential for discord and splits. Its parliamentary gains will also increase expectations among its voters which the party will scarcely be able to fulfil. For this reason, it is not to be expected that winning seats in the Bundestag will serve as a springboard to a further qualitative consolidation – but nor that the AfD will disappear as quickly as former right-populist movements have in the past in different federal states.

The struggle against the AfD must therefore become a central part of the strategy of Die Linke and the trade unions. And it is vital that this involves an examination of the causes behind the victory of right-wing populism. This will entail taking up an earnest struggle against the capitalist establishment and mobilisation in the interests of the common social interests of the working class.

Die Linke’s east-west divide

Die Linke gained half-a-million votes but this did not prevent the AfD from becoming the new main protest party and the strongest of the small parties. In reality, there were two results for Die Linke: an increase in votes in the west of the country and losses in the east. This massive loss of votes in eastern Germany must be seen as a warning sign. At the same time, in the west Die Linke passed the 5% hurdle in every federal state. However, that this cannot be taken for granted was reflected in October’s election in Lower Saxony in which Die Linke only polled 4.6% and so did not make it into the state parliament.

In numerous constituencies in western Germany, Die Linke was able to gain well above 10% – for example, Kassel 13.6%, Bremen 14.2%, Hamburg Altona 15.7%, Berlin-Neukölln 18.3%. In the east, however, things went downhill. West Berlin and the ‘border’ constituencies, where the old East and West Berlin merged, recorded an increase in the Die Linke vote. Meanwhile, votes were lost in its traditional strongholds in East Berlin, despite the fact that former leader Gregor Gysi and others held on to their seats due to the direct vote.

In the city of Münster in the west, the AfD failed to get past the 5% mark due to the many protests and campaigns organised in that town and Die Linke polled very well, based on a radical local election campaign. All this confirms the view of the critical forces on the left wing of Die Linke who argue that the party’s orientation towards government coalitions with the SPD and Green Party is a dangerous ploy, compromising with the establishment.

Could there be any other explanation for Die Linke’s dramatic loss of votes in the east of the country? One key factor is that many people still feel like second-class citizens, often with lower wages and pensions – more than 25 years after German reunification. They have come to see Die Linke often governing over this unjust situation in local and state governments, rather than leading the fight against their conditions. That this feeling of marginalisation and betrayal has almost entirely been expressed by the AfD, and directed against refugees and migrants, testifies to the abject failure of the east German leaders who play a dominant role in Die Linke, and who are generally on its right wing.

Organised resistance

Nonetheless, Die Linke has been able to make gains in cities and among young people, especially those with higher education, because they see it as the sole alternative to the AfD and international Trumpism. The party will disappoint this layer if it hopes for a transformation of the SPD in the period of opposition – and looks for a coalition of the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens at the next election. The SPD’s customary verbal opposition is to be expected, but Die Linke must distance itself from empty rhetoric and organise resistance, including against the many SPD-led governments at a federal state and municipal level.

The comments by Sahra Wagenknecht (one of Die Linke’s top two candidates and its parliamentary co-leader) on the evening of the election were especially inappropriate. Neues Deutschland reported that, "with an eye on the issue of refugees, [she said] one has ‘perhaps excluded certain problems out of concern that by raising these points one might be fuelling resentment’. Thus, ultimately, one had left it to the AfD to ‘speak out on certain issues which people simply experience as they see them’."

This convoluted argument is reminiscent of the incorrect statements from 2015 and 2016, when she declared that the right to asylum should be seen as an act of ‘hospitality’. At the same time, Wagenknecht supported deportations and depicted terror attacks as being causally linked to migration. Everything must be done to prevent her from taking Die Linke down this course, whereby responding to the success of the AfD seems to mean ditching her principles on the political issue of migrants.

It is necessary for the party to take up the questions of refugees and migration openly and put forward a bold, unequivocal class position. This would mean formulating much clearer demands and taking up a strong position in the debate. Up to now, this issue has been used to distract people from their own social problems and the causes behind them, and to overshadow the common interests of migrants and people born in Germany. A change in approach would mean focusing the demands against the power and wealth of the ‘1%’, and prioritising the class issues – and to stop participating in federal state governments privatising motorways, continuing with the polluting brown coal industry, and deportation policies.

In reality, there appears to be no alternative for the ruling class than the formation of a ‘Jamaican’ coalition, as the SPD – for reasons of self-preservation – has declared that it will go into opposition. Nonetheless, the coalition negotiations will not be straightforward. The CDU/CSU are weakened, the FDP and Greens will be keen to push through as many concessions as they can, and it will not be easy to find a compromise. Another election cannot be entirely excluded. Nor should we rule out the possibility of the SPD adopting a conciliatory position on joining a government in the event that the talks on a Jamaican coalition flounder.

However, another election would probably strengthen the position of the AfD, and four more years in coalition is untenable for the SPD unless it is prepared to risk becoming a minor 10% party. In any case, the election marks the end of the period of relative peace and stability that characterised the quiet years of the Merkel regency. If economic crisis intervenes the social questions can quickly become the focus and new opportunities would open up for Die Linke.

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