Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine


PDS joins cuts government

Following last year’s elections in Berlin the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) has joined the governing coalition. As Socialistische Alternative (the German section of the CWI) reports, instead of pushing the capital’s government to the left, this development is speeding up the rightward shift of the PDS.

THREE MONTHS AFTER the regional elections, Berlin has a new government. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (SPD) and the former Stalinist Partei das Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS) have formed a coalition to run the German capital. This is widely seen as a breakthrough for the PDS. But those who thought that PDS participation in government would bring an end to cuts and privatisation are already being confronted with a bitter truth: the coalition has agreed to implement the worst ever attacks on the living standards of ordinary people.

Originally, the SPD did not want to link up with the PDS because of its opposition to the US-led war against Afghanistan. But the negotiations with the liberal Frei Demokratische Partei (FDP) and Die Grünen (the Greens) failed. Now, however, the establishment seems satisfied. Gregor Gysi, the best-known PDS public figure, is the finance senator and wants to make Volkmar Strauch, leader of the employers’ organisation IHK, his state secretary.

The regional and local elections in Berlin on 21 October were a disaster for the conservative Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU). Its support fell by more than 17% compared to the last elections two years ago. This is the CDU’s biggest fall in any regional election and its worst result in Berlin since 1948. It picked up the bill for decades of corruption and cuts in social spending.

The election was called after the previous CDU/SPD coalition broke down after ruling the city for eleven years. Instead of the ‘blossoming landscapes’ promised by former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, when the Berlin Wall was pulled down in 1989, the city has seen a massive destruction of its industrial base. Of the 400,000 industrial jobs in the capital ten years ago, only 130,000 remain. This has been accompanied by massive cuts in the public sector, including the loss of 61,000 public-sector jobs since 1992. With 18% unemployment, Berlin has become known as the ‘capital of the unemployed’. In the 1990s the city was the role model for the neo-liberal offensive. Everything from gas and water companies to council houses and hospitals, and many other public utilities, were privatised. Vicious cuts in health, education and welfare were implemented.

The coalition finally broke down after yet another corruption scandal. Klaus Landowsky, who was CDU leader in the Berlin parliament, was also president of the Berliner Bankgesellschaft, a bank in which the city of Berlin holds the majority of shares. He had given out dubious credits to some of his party friends in return for donations to the CDU of DM40,000 ($18,000).

Establishment parties rejected

THE CDU TOOK most of the blame for the scandal, although SPD members also sat on the company board. But last October’s defeat also shows that the CDU has not recovered its position since its defeat in the national elections in 1998 and the subsequent scandals around illegal party donations. For the moment, the SPD has replaced the CDU as the most reliable party of German capitalism. The CDU has not found a new oppositional role. Most of its political positions have been adopted by the SPD-led national government.

Yet the SPD has not profited as much as was expected from the crisis of the CDU. It gained 7.3% on the last election but that is still its second-worst result in Berlin. Die Grünen, the other component of the federal government coalition, has now lost votes in 17 regional elections in a row. Young people in particular see it as a party which has abandoned its principles. From forcing through the transportation of nuclear waste across Germany, in the face of fierce resistance by young people and rural communities, to supporting the US-led war against Afghanistan, the leadership of Die Grünen has traded-in its policies for power. As a result, most of its traditional supporters in the anti-nuclear and peace movements, from which the party originated, have turned their backs on it. It is doubtful that it will gain the 5% minimum average vote needed to retain any parliamentary seats in the next general election. A future break-up of the party is possible.

But the fascist or extreme right-wing parties were not able to capitalise on the disillusionment with the establishment parties either. Republikaner, which had representatives in five local parliaments, lost all its seats. The NPD, the most violent of the fascist parties in Germany, organised a march of 1,000 people during the election campaign. Although it did not win any seats, it received up to 2.6% in some areas of eastern Berlin, which is a warning to the left that the fascist threat is not off the agenda.

The main reason for the reduced overall vote for the extreme right was that disillusionment with the establishment parties found its expression on the left – in the form of the PDS. It gained the support of almost half the voters in the eastern part of the city, where it became the strongest party. Equally significant was its result in western areas. Here, the PDS averaged 6.9%, a gain of 2.7% on two years ago. In some places it achieved 14%. The PDS is now represented in all the local parliaments across Berlin.

One factor was the high popularity rating of Gysi, its mayoral candidate, but another equally important factor was the PDS opposition to the war against Afghanistan. After an internal debate in which Gysi tried to convince the party of the necessity of ‘limited military attacks’ against terrorism, the PDS came out with a clear stance against the war. This made it the only party in the national parliament to reject the ‘unlimited solidarity’ with the US, declared by chancellor Gerard Schröder. Seventy-two percent of PDS voters said that they voted for the party because of this position. This was especially true for young people. Of those voting for the first time, 70% in eastern Berlin and 20% in the west voted PDS. In the city as a whole, 30% of voters aged 18-24 voted PDS. The party was clearly seen by many as a way of articulating opposition to the support for the US military campaign given by the establishment parties.

For some, a vote for the PDS signified even more than that. According to one TV poll, 38% voted PDS because it ‘stands for socialism’. This reflects the fact that a significant and growing minority is searching for a general alternative to the capitalist system and its effects – unemployment, poverty and war.

Shift to the right

IN SHARP CONTRAST to this common perception stand the developments within the PDS itself. Its leadership wants to ‘arrive in the Federal Republic’, by which it means that the party should accept the capitalist market economy. In a discussion on the new party programme, the leadership published a draft which uses the term ‘socialism’ not as an alternative to capitalism but as a ‘set of values’. The left-wing’s proposal was not even circulated – the leadership prevented its distribution and discussion by bureaucratic manoeuvres. At the party congress in Dresden in October 2001, 88% voted that the leadership’s draft should be the only one discussed. Clearly, the leaders have not forgotten the methods of bureaucratic control that they learned under the Stalinist regime of the former GDR. On the other hand, the left demonstrated its inability to mobilise and campaign for support inside or outside the party. It is unable to stop this shift to the right.

The acceptance of the principle of the market economy leads the PDS to accept the ‘necessities’ of capitalism. This is shown by the policy decisions it has taken in Berlin. Far from proposing an alternative to the anti-working class policies of its predecessors, the PDS in the governing coalition is preparing to force through even harsher cuts. It claims that the measures are the only way to solve the huge budget crisis of the city.

Berlin now has debts of almost €40 billion ($46bn). Most of this is due to the destruction of industry over the last decade, which has gone alongside mismanagement and corruption, with vast sums of money squandered on prestige projects. The city pays around €5 million ($5.7m) to the banks every day! This is enough to finance all the schools and teachers in the city. But the PDS does not even consider spending this money on funding public services, or taxing big business in order to get rid of the budget deficit.

Instead, workers and the unemployed are expected to pay for the bosses’ crisis. The coalition partners agreed to axe another 15,000 public-sector jobs and public-sector wages are to be cut by €511 million ($580m). The privatisation of housing and other public utilities is expected to raise €1.16 billion ($1.3bn). They plan to shut down one of the three university clinics, putting 5,000 jobs and 4,500 places for medicine students at risk. Twelve swimming pools are being closed. The public transport company, BVG, is being forced to form an ‘alliance’ with the privately-owned S-Bahn, which will mean cuts in wages for BVG workers. This breaks a promise given by Gysi to the BVG workforce during the election campaign.

Resistance building

THESE CUTS COINCIDE with the onset of recession in Germany. Research institutes have scaled down their economic growth forecasts to around 0.6% for 2002 and 2003. Unemployment, which officially stands at four million, has started to rise again. The cuts and rising unemployment will provoke a fightback by the working class.

In Berlin, even before the governing coalition was formed, thousands of people were on the streets in protest. On 5 December, 10,000 took part in a demo called by the unions against public-sector job and wage cuts. Then, on 11 January, thousands of hospital staff and students blockaded the SPD congress to protest against the closure of the Benjamin Franklin university clinic. Hundreds of demonstrators tried to storm the building. The SPD delegates were visibly shocked. But the mayor and Berlin SPD leader, Klaus Wowereit, was correct when he warned: ‘This is only a little foretaste of what we will see in the coming years’.

On the political plane, there are increasing numbers of people searching for an alternative to the capitalist market economy. This is shown by the rapid growth in the anti-globalisation group, Attac. More than 3,000 people attended its founding conference in October. Among these activists, and within society in general, an openness towards socialist ideas is growing. A small reflection of this is the result of Socialistische Alternative (SAV, the German section of the CWI) in the Berlin elections. In Pankow/Prenzlauer Berg, an area of eastern Berlin, the SAV list for the local parliament received 903 votes or 0.5%. This doubled our votes from two years ago. We also put up candidates for the regional parliament under the banner of the Democratic Left, which is a broader left list. In these elections, our candidates in the same Prenzlauer Berg area received between 0.9% (194 votes) and 1.1% (235 votes). These are credible results and compare favourably with other left groups. They were achieved in spite of the fact that the main focus of attention during the elections was on anti-war activity.

SAV, together with the youth organisation International Resistance, set up a school students’ committee before the war started. On the day after the bombing raids on Afghanistan began, this committee organised a Berlin-wide school students’ strike of 5,000 young people. It was widely seen as one of the most important steps for the anti-war movement so far and received a lot of media attention. SAV was denounced as the main organiser of the strike by the gutter press and the education senator. We answered this with a public campaign against the war and the victimisation of individual school students after the strike.


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