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No choice German elections

It looks likely that 22 September will mark the end of a brief period of Red-Green government in Germany. Following 16 years of the conservative Helmut Kohl as chancellor, his successor, social democrat Gerhard Schröder, has taken a mere four years to pick the CDU/CSU off the floor and put it within striking distance of electoral victory. SASCHA STANICIC, the national secretary of Sozialistische Alternative (the German CWI affiliate), reports.

HELMUT KOHL LOST the last election in 1998 as a result of mass protests by the working class in the preceding two years. Half-a-million trade unionists marched on Bonn (then the capital) in 1996. Metalworkers went on strike to defend sick pay, and miners occupied the areas around government buildings in defence of their jobs. Kohl had not solved any of society’s fundamental problems and, in particular, mass unemployment stayed at dizzy heights. Instead of the ‘blooming landscapes’ promised for East Germany, there occurred the biggest industrial decline in German history, with jobs destroyed and social deprivation on a huge scale.

It was the anger at 16 years of attacks on the working class which brought about a change in government. Even though coalitions of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and the Greens had cut social services and privatised public assets throughout the 1990s in many local councils and state governments, some sections of the working class hoped for an improvement. Their attitude was, ‘It can’t get any worse’. And finance minister Oscar Lafontaine had a reputation as a left-winger so, perhaps, he would be able to put SPD leader, Gerhard Schröder, the ‘bosses’ comrade’, in his place.

But things did get worse. After only six months, Lafontaine gave up. His Keynesian economic ideas were at odds with the neo-liberal doctrine pursued by the German capitalists and Schröder. Lafontaine got the boot after an unparalleled media campaign. The British tabloid newspaper, The Sun, described him as ‘Europe’s most dangerous man’. Lafontaine later said that the SPD believed it was in power, to discover it was only in government! In reality, his aim was to manage the crisis of capitalism more effectively.

The change in government did not result in a change of policy. The Red-Green coalition carried on where the previous Kohl government left off. For the most part election promises were ‘forgotten’, including the pledge to reinstate the wealth tax abolished by Kohl and to end anti-strike legislation (Article 116), while the government exploited workers’ aspirations in order to carry out attacks which even Kohl never dared attempt. The minister for work and social welfare, Walter Riester (formerly deputy chair of IGMetall – the metalworkers’ union), carried out a pension ‘reform’ which prepared the way for the privatisation of pensions, resulting in higher premiums and lower payouts.

The introduction of the ‘Eco-tax’ was another measure which increased workers’ tax burden but did nothing to help the environment. ‘Green’ environmental policies, which heralded ‘the beginning of the end for nuclear energy’, in fact, guaranteed the existence of nuclear power stations for the next 32 years. Tax reform benefited big business and the government set up the Hartz Commission (chaired by a Volkswagen director), which drew up a plan of vicious attacks on workers’ rights and the unemployed.

Schröder wants to be judged on his success in reducing mass unemployment but he has not even achieved his modest target of reducing unemployment to 3.5 million. The figures for August show that there are over four million people without a job and that is the official figure – unemployment is really much higher.

The Red-Green government tried to grant the capitalists their every wish, not least the militarisation of foreign policy. For decades German capitalism was an economic giant – the third biggest economy in the world – but a political dwarf, due to the world order established after the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime. With the unification of West and East Germany and the restoration of capitalism in the other Stalinist states, the ruling class is now drawing a line across 50 years of the post-war balance of power. German capitalism wants to be back on the frontline, both politically and militarily. This is why Schröder wants Germany to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and has contributed troops to military action for the first time since the end of the second world war. Schröder’s government has given 17 authorisations for German soldiers to be sent to all corners of the world – they are now stationed in the Balkans, Africa, Kuwait, Afghanistan and other regions.

So how should we rate recent comments by Schröder opposing participation in a possible war on Iraq, even if this were under UN leadership? The experience of the last four years shows that there are no anti-militaristic principles involved here. The election is on and polls show 81% of the population is against a war with Iraq. When George W Bush visited Berlin in May, more than 70,000 people demonstrated against him. But after the elections, other ‘facts’ can quickly be produced: sudden ‘proof’ that Saddam Hussein has links with al-Qa’ida, or new ‘reports’ that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. And the appeal of the Iraqi bourgeois opposition for military action against Saddam could be used.

However, Schröder’s position does also reflect diverging interests between the German ruling class and their US counterparts. Schröder wants to put pressure on the US to check their unilateralist approach. He also sees the incalculable consequences of an attack on Iraq, not just for the Middle East but also for the advanced capitalist countries where a mass anti-war movement is certain.

Alienated politics

IN THE LAST few years, there has been one political scandal after another. Originally, the CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) was affected when Kohl was forced to resign all party positions for accepting illegal donations. Now it has hit SPD and Green politicians. In North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional stronghold of social democracy, several cases of corruption have been uncovered. Recently, Schröder kicked out defence minister Rudolf Scharping because of dubious financial dealings with a public relations manager (a CDU politician!). Shortly after, Cem Özdemir (a Green party politician) and Gregor Gysi, leader of the PDS (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus – the former state party of Stalinist East Germany), resigned from their posts because they had been using air miles gained on business trips with the German airline Lufthansa for private travel.

This catalogue of affairs, corruption and scandals only alienates the working class and young people even more from the establishment parties and bourgeois institutions. The crisis of confidence in capitalism has grown deeper, preparing the ground for right-wing populist and nationalist movements as seen in other European countries. The proportion of the electorate who actually vote has been falling continually in Germany and there has been no lack of surprise results in council and state elections. In April’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD crashed from 36% to 20%, after being in a PDS-supported government for eight years. In Hamburg, at the council elections in September 2001, the right-wing populist ‘law and order offensive’ party of judge Ronald Schill won almost 20% of the vote and was elected onto the city government at the first attempt. Schill, however, has not been able to build a credible national structure and it is unlikely that his party will achieve the 5% required to enter the national parliament, the Bundestag. This is partly due to the fact that the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor, Edmund Stoiber, can mobilise potential right-wing voters with his racist and reactionary slogans.

The dissatisfaction and anger of workers and young people can only be expressed in a limited way on the electoral plane because there is no strong left-wing alternative in the form of a campaigning workers’ party. It has been reflected, however, in a considerable increase in industrial struggle, although not on the same level as in Italy, Spain or Portugal. There have been strikes for higher wages in the engineering and construction industries and these were followed by warning strikes by Deutsche Telekom workers and in the post, banking, printing and retail sectors.

Stagnating wages over the last 20 years provide the background. Between 1980 and 2000 wages fell by 0.4% in real terms, while the net profits of the bosses rose by 96.5%. Price rises linked to the introduction of the euro have only added to demands for higher pay. The strikes are all the more significant because they are taking place during an economic downturn and in an election year. They have happened because of the mood developing at the grassroots level and against the will of the trade union leaders.

The leadership of the trade unions swung dramatically to the right during the 1990s. Instead of fighting for their members’ interests, they prefer to act as co-managers and go along with the attacks on the working class. A long list of union leaders has changed sides, becoming politicians in government or managers of privatised companies. Frustration on the shop floor is widespread and many workers have left the unions. This has led to employees in some sectors – call centres, for example – setting up their own structures independently of the unions. Pressure from below is growing. The situation has not developed as far as it has in some British unions, where left-wing leaders have been elected. But the establishment of a national network of left-wing union activists is a sign that a strong left opposition can develop in the deepening economic recession.

After the mass demonstrations in Genoa last summer, the movement against capitalist globalisation in Germany has also grown. The most important organisation is Attac which, within a few months, formed groups in over 100 towns and grew from 400 to 6,000 members. Attac presents a programme for reforming capitalism (it is against the privatisation of the welfare state, favours the introduction of the Tobin Tax on stock market transactions, and calls for a new economic order, without saying exactly what kind) but nonetheless, within Attac, there is room for discussion about socialist ideas, and socialists participate in its activities, arguing for it to adopt a clear anti-capitalist direction. Attac took part in the major demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan and Bush’s visit to Germany. Along with trade union youth organisations, it has called a national demonstration on 14 September against neo-liberalism and for social justice.

Stop Stoiber?

STOIBER IS A particularly reactionary representative of the bosses. He stands for a further increase in racist policies and attacks on workers’ rights – such as watering down nationally negotiated wage deals and redundancy protection. Stoiber stands to benefit from the huge disappointment with the SPD and Greens, although there is no enthusiasm for him and the turnout is expected to fall to a record low. His candidate for minister of the economy, Lothar Späth, personifies what the working class can expect from a Stoiber-led government. Späth is managing director of Jenoptik, a glass lens manufacturer in East Germany which he took over in 1991 (after he was forced to resign as minister-president of Baden-Württemberg in a corruption scandal) sacking thousands of workers and increasing working hours.

The trade union leaders and some lefts, including the sister organisation of the SWP, are pursuing a ‘Stop Stoiber’ policy. This creates the impression that Schröder is the lesser of two evils. The logic of this is to call, either directly or indirectly, for a vote for the SPD. (To date the German SWP has not published any election appeal although previously it published articles calling on people to vote SPD or PDS). Yet the fact is that responsibility for a possible change in government lies fairly and squarely with the SPD and Green coalition’s right-wing policies. To stop Stoiber, therefore, it is necessary to fight Schröder’s policies. If a Red-Green government were re-elected after 22 September, it would mean a continuation of an anti-working class programme. Socialists must actively campaign against both Stoiber and Schröder, while offering a fundamentally different policy, a socialist alternative.

Socialist Alternative (SAV) is conducting an active election campaign under two main slogans: ‘No to the policies of the banks and big business’, and ‘Resistance against Stoiber and Schröder’. In particular, we campaign against the privatisation of health and education, plans to cut unemployment benefits and increase the low-wage sector, and in opposition to all military campaigns – emphasising that, whatever happens on election day, opposition will be necessary. A central demand of our election campaign is for the building of a new mass workers’ party because the SPD and PDS will not defend the political interests of millions of workers and young people.

SAV is fielding first-past-the-post candidates in seven cities. The German electoral system has two votes: one for the constituency candidate, and a second for different party lists. The second vote is decisive for the composition of the Bundestag. The PDS is the only party with seats in the Bundestag which opposes war and cuts in social services. It would disappoint many leftwingers and trade unionists if the PDS did not get back in. As long as there is no strong left alternative across Germany, the presence of the PDS is at least an expression of the opposition to the neo-liberal policies of Schröder and Stoiber. SAV therefore calls for the second vote to go to the PDS, while appealing for workers and young people to join SAV and campaign with us for a new workers’ party.

The further deterioration of the economy will soon mean that new struggles – action in defence of jobs and even to save whole factories, or to fight plans to cut wages and lengthen working hours – will be on the agenda. At the end of the year, wage negotiations start for public-service employees. This could be the signal for strikes. So-called ‘plans to fight unemployment’ will be put into practice by the next government, whatever its composition, and will inevitably lead to sharper attacks on the unemployed and those in work. The prospect is for increased polarisation and confrontation between the classes.

It is possible that workers’ struggles could coincide with a mass movement against a war in Iraq and the movement against capitalist globalisation. This would tend to speed up the development of a left opposition in the trade unions. More and more workers and young people will recognise the need for a new political movement, especially if the PDS fails to get back into the Bundestag. Against this background, the programme put forward by Socialist Alternative will attract ever wider support.

Many thanks to Felicity Garvie for translating this article for Socialism Today.

The Party of Democratic Socialism

SINCE UNIFICATION, the PDS has developed into a ‘normal’ reformist, centre-left party. With its 90,000 (ageing) members it represents a small mass party in East Germany, gaining up to 20% in elections. In West Germany it remains a minuscule force with less than 4,000 members and 1-2% of the vote.

Whilst the PDS is the only party in the Bundestag not specifically linked to capitalist interests – for example, it has come out against the war and pension reform – in East Germany it has become a party of government at local and state level, carrying out cuts in social services and privatisation. It adopts these ‘pragmatic’ policies because the leadership has bought into market economics. The party is socialist in name only. It pursues a purely parliamentary strategy and plays virtually no role in movements outside parliament.

The PDS sits in government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin. Particularly in Berlin it supports a severe programme of cuts in social services, job losses and privatisation. It is merely a question of time until the party follows the SPD fully into the capitalist camp. That is, unless it breaks up before then. This cannot be ruled out. After Gysi resigned, several opinion polls indicated that the PDS might not get back into the Bundestag. For many, the party’s anti-war stance was the main reason for voting for it. The statements of Schröder and Joschka Fischer (Green party leader) against a war with Iraq, although insincere, could cost the PDS even more votes. So could the offer from the PDS leadership to back Schröder for chancellor if the SPD and Greens lose their majority.

One of the party’s theoreticians, the MEP Andre Brie, has suggested a new left-wing project with Gysi and Lafontaine. This sparked off a discussion about a new left party. On the basis of their past politics, such a party would not offer any genuine alternative. But simply launching a new left party would inspire many workers and young people. In an online opinion poll by the magazine Der Spiegel, more than 40% said they could imagine voting for such a party. At present, there are no signs of Gysi and Lafontaine taking this initiative, but in the medium term anything is possible if a right-wing government is elected in the autumn.

After the flood

THE FLOODS IN many parts of Germany have had a devastating effect on the lives of thousands of people and on the infrastructure and economy. The Schröder government is trying to take advantage of this situation. It has promised rapid help and has postponed the next tax reform from 2003 to 2004, thus freeing up €6.9bn for rebuilding the destroyed areas. The cost of the destruction, however, will probably be three or more times higher. The SPD and Greens have been attempting to present themselves as more competent on environmental questions, with Stoiber not even having an environmental spokesperson in his campaign team. Consequently, according to some opinion polls, the SPD and Greens could gain a few percentage points.

This might make the election result a bit more open again, but it does not alter the fact that it looks as though the Red-Green government will lose. If that were to be the case, the coalition parties will be thrown into turmoil. However, it is not certain what a new government would look like. In Stoiber and Schröder, the capitalists have two politicians they can be very happy with, even if the bosses are now making their preference for Stoiber clear. A coalition of CDU/CSU and the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) could possibly get a majority. A ‘grand coalition’ of the SPD and CDU/CSU cannot be ruled out. There is another theoretical option, although it is the least likely, and that is a coalition of SPD, the Greens and the FDP. Whichever version succeeds, the working class can only lose.


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