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Germany: left alliance promises fresh breeze

Support for the ruling coalition of the social-democratic SPD and Greens has collapsed as opposition to its vicious attacks on social provision, work conditions and wages grows. Out of workers’ protests, the WASG party (work and social justice alternative) was set up. Now, WASG is linking up with SPD dissident, Oskar Lafontaine. KIM OPGENOORTH reports on dynamic developments on the German left.

Translated from the German by Tanja Niemeier

‘LAST WEEK MY colleagues were discussing football in the break, this week they are discussing politics’, reports a cleaner from Berlin. It is as if somebody turned the switch. Oskar Lafontaine’s announcement to stand as a candidate for a new left party in an instant changed Germany’s political landscape: ‘Colleagues who never discussed politics before say they are going to vote for the new party in September’, ‘We will have to give it a try’.

All of a sudden events are chasing one another. The SPD loses the elections in its former heartland and most populous regional state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and the whole political landscape is now painted black. (Black is the colour of the Christian Democrats – CDU.) But the CDU does not get much time to celebrate as SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, adopts a cut-your-losses-and-run strategy and calls for early elections. Then former chair of the SPD, Lafontaine, decided to leave the SPD, announcing that he is willing to stand for a new left alliance. His statement was the starting point for negotiations between the PDS (Party for Democratic Socialism) and WASG (a new party initially set up by middle-ranking trade union officials, former SPD and PDS members, and activists from the social movements).

The press has since reported daily on developments around the new left alliance as one of the main headlines. There is talk about the historic opportunity to unite the left. First opinion polls indicate that 18-25% of the German population could imagine voting for such an alliance.

The conservative newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, writes: "The time is ripe for new political ideas. At a time of the furthest reach and impact of the neo-liberal ideology, there are more and more signs that people simply have had enough of it". Another paper quotes Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto. In talk-shows, Lafontaine speaks of the serious responsibility of an incoming government, that if it does not implement ‘reforms’ in ‘a more social way’, a revolutionary situation is unavoidable.

The established parties are nervous. They have discovered a social conscience as it becomes fashionable to be on the left. In a frantic manner, the SPD is adopting – minor – changes to the hated Hartz IV laws (major attacks on unemployment and social provision). It is allowing the older unemployed to receive benefits for longer, while retreating on lowering corporate taxes. The CDU blames Schröder for undermining the principles of the ‘social market’ economy. The CDU wants to implement cuts in a ‘socially responsible’ way. All of a sudden, both parties say that wage rises are justifiable. The Greens are in a panic. It is far from certain that they will be re-elected into the national parliament. Social policy has always been like a foreign language to them, but they now speak of basic security for everyone to guarantee a life out of poverty. The SPD portrays itself as ‘centre left’, the Greens as ‘modern left’.

Quite rightly, the new left alliance is also seen as a threat by the far-right and fascist parties which thought they would be able to benefit by getting the support of non-voters who no longer feel represented by any party.

The capitalism debate

THE SPD CHAIR, Franz Münterfering, adopted an anti-capitalist phraseology in the run-up to the North Rhine-Westphalia elections in an attempt to prevent disaster for his party. He spoke of financial investors as a plague of locusts which invade a company, devour it and then move on. He accused them of not thinking of the people whose jobs they destroy. It did not help. While 66% of the population agreed with Münterfering’s criticism of the ‘power of capital’, 73% did not believe the SPD was serious about its criticisms. But the debate he unleashed continues. The conservative Allensbach research institution admitted that only one in four Germans have a positive opinion of capitalism. Economists complain about their bad reputation in society. On the news channel for children, capitalists are defined as people who make profits and sack workers.

An SPD official describes the situation: "When it comes to the economy, the red-green government has fulfilled all the wishes of big business and sometimes even exceeded them… After five years of subjugation to the dogma of neo-liberalism, the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer; there are more old people and fewer children. Unemployment has reached a record high, the state finances are ruined and 100,000 small- and middle-sized companies have vanished. And all this is now going to be covered up for by a little bit of locust talk...?"

The red-green government coalition unrolled the red carpet for big business. It very generously implemented tax cuts for big business and the super-rich. But with Hart IV and Agenda 2010, it also implemented poverty by law for a large part of the population. For years on end, it has preached and implemented wage restraint. It implemented fees in the health service and smashed the social security and pensions systems.

Under the red-green government, Germany also participated in a war for the first time since the end of the second world war, sending troops to the Balkans and Afghanistan. The struggle for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is an indication of how German capitalism is striving to put its imperialist interests back on the agenda.

Apparently, this still is not enough for the German bourgeoisie who increased pressure on the government and did not want to wait until after the elections, originally scheduled for 2006. German capitalists are faced with a stagnating economy and want to see an increase in attacks on the working class.

The SPD is facing deep crisis. For the first time in 50 years, membership is below 600,000. The pressure in society has weakened Schröder’s position. He can no longer be sure of the full backing of the parliamentary group. And there are signs of a sustainable formation to the left of the SPD.

Because of bureaucratic rules that stem from the electoral laws, a new left formation needs to be launched very quickly. There is not a lot of time for long debates, according to the leaderships of WASG and the PDS at least. They are negotiating who will stand at the top of the electoral list and what the name of the new formation will be. They are not discussing the programme. Their aim is to become the third biggest force in parliament and they are keen on winning seats. A clear programme could cut across this, in their view. The negotiations are conducted amongst a small layer of people. Even though WASG will hold a ballot and party conference, in effect, all the conference can do is say yes or no to the proposals. The members do not have a genuine say. Although standing candidates on PDS open lists was initially rejected by the WASG leadership, this is exactly what is going to happen now. The objective is to fuse the two parties in the next two years. Up until then, the formation will be called Democratic Left/PDS. The conditions are largely determined by the PDS, which in terms of members is ten times bigger than WASG.

Standing WASG independently is no longer considered to be an option by the WASG leadership, even though this would have meant a new and genuine alternative. Especially in the West, a combative, independent election campaign by WASG could have attracted broader layers than a PDS open list.

The WASG alternative

WASG WAS FORMED against the background of the mass protests over the last two years. Half-a-million people participated in the one and only demonstration organised by the trade unions against the government’s policies. The trade union bureaucracy was forced to organise it because of the enormous pressure that was developing from below and the danger of the protests bypassing them.

With summer 2004 came the Monday demonstrations: mass protests, especially in East Germany, against the implementation of Hartz IV. These movements led to a first split between parts of the trade unions and the SPD. Middle-ranking union officials and activists from those movements formed a new party, WASG. As a split from the SPD and as an alternative to the PDS, it had already received widespread media coverage in 2004. It was portrayed as more to the left than it actually was and scored good results in opinion polls. Internal quarrels and a boycott by the media left it hardly noticed until after the important regional state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia.

WASG’s membership ranges from left Christians, right-wing reformists, supporters of a party to defend the welfare state, left reformists, as well as activists who see themselves as socialists. One of the more prominent leaders, Klaus Ernst, says: "Nobody is interested in socialism as an objective for today anymore". Parts of the membership have got a different view on that. At the last WASG conference, 30% of the delegates voted for Sascha Stanicic, general secretary of SAV (Socialist Alternative, CWI Germany), in elections for the national committee. SAV campaigns for WASG to adopt a programme that rejects capitalism and fights for a socialist perspective. On this basis, SAV has built a strong position inside WASG. In the national press, "the Trotskyites of SAV" have been mentioned again and again.

From the very beginning, the rank and file has been critical of the leadership. The lack of democracy has been an issue since WASG was formed. There are reservations in relation to Lafontaine. Many are annoyed that he did not openly come out in favour of WASG before the regional North Rhine-Westphalia elections. Also, his move does not really signify a new left policy. It is true that his candidacy has had huge media coverage. At the same time, it potentially strengthens the rightwing within WASG which would be a further setback for party democracy. The election campaign will most probably focus on Gregor Gysi, the eloquent top candidate of the PDS, and Lafontaine. They will become the focal point of attention and will try to determine the outlook of the party by what they say.

Publicly, Lafontaine is renowned for his opposition to Agenda 2010, the EU constitution, and the participation of German troops in the wars against former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Many see him as somebody who stands by his words and who dares to speak out. Hartz IV was described by Lafontaine as "absolutely unreasonable", a "cold expropriation of old and deserving employees". He is famous for his attacks against "finance capitalism" which destroys democracy, and for his attacks on those MPs who act as the "servants of big business", who pass "scandalous laws" over the heads of the people.

However, what he likes about the PDS is that it defends the principles of the market economy, employers and profits. He is still in favour of a decrease in the working week with loss of pay. Every now and again, he also adopts nationalistic rhetoric. He is in favour of limiting the right to asylum and for the creation of refugee camps in North Africa to prevent people from entering Europe. He was also criticised for using the insulting term "Fremdarbeiter" (‘foreign worker’) in one of his recent speeches. Lafontaine, who still views himself as a social democrat, was chair of the SPD until 1999 and, therefore, is co-responsible for the SPD’s shift to the right.

He likes to stress that he held public positions for 25 years. As mayor and then prime minister of Saarbrücken and, later, as finance minister in the first-term Schröder government, he implemented cuts against the working class. He has been involved in corruption scandals. In Saarland, he was responsible for closing down several steel factories and for slashing thousands of jobs. We need to be cautious about Lafontaine. It is necessary to build a strong leftwing inside WASG that can challenge and put him under political pressure.

The problem of the PDS

AT FIRST SIGHT, there seems to be a lot of pressure for coming together, with a joint candidacy of the left. But for many, the PDS is not eligible. It is suspect because of its Stalinist past and because, generally, it still sees the GDR (the former East German Stalinist state) as socialist.

It forms joint government coalitions with the SPD in the regional states of Berlin and Mecklenburg Vorpommern. In addition, it has got a lot of mayors in East German towns and cities. Wherever the PDS has taken on government responsibility, it implements social cuts. The PDS sees itself as a socialist party. However, when it comes to day-to-day policy, it tends to forget about that. On Mondays, it demonstrates against Hartz IV. During the other days of the week, it helps implement it. Allegedly to prevent worse things from happening, it privatised hospitals in Berlin, increased fares for public transport, and introduced cuts in benefits for the blind. Thirteen thousand public transport workers took strike action against the SPD-PDS senate in Berlin.

Its active membership is estimated at 6,000. This equals the number of its public representatives. The rest of the 60,000 are paper-members, most of them beyond pension age. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, it has not succeeded in building a real base in the west of the country. In the regional state elections of North Rhine-Westphalia, it only scored 0.9% of the vote. WASG reached 2.2%, yet was far less known, with a smaller apparatus. The WASG’s 181,000 votes was a very creditable result. In some working-class districts, it received between 3-4% and, amongst the unemployed, up to 9%, becoming the third biggest force.

Big discontent exists amongst the WASG rank and file about the PDS dominance. The criticisms come from the left and the right. The right-wing, anti-communists do not want to be aligned with socialism. Amongst the left, the PDS is discredited because of its ‘realpolitik’ of social cuts. There are also concerns that WASG is simply being eaten up by the large PDS apparatus.

SAV argued for a radical shift in PDS policy, and a rejection of privatisation and social cuts. This would have meant the PDS leaving the government coalitions they are currently involved in and would have been a clear signal, representing a serious step towards forming a genuine new alternative. Unfortunately, this has not happened. SAV now argues in favour of WASG conducting an independent election campaign within the alliance.

In the future, this alliance could break up. Only six months after the proposed September general election, elections are due in Berlin. SAV and many others want to see WASG standing independently against the PDS, which is in the coalition government in Berlin. That decision was also made at WASG’s regional conference in Berlin.

A new politicisation

THE SELF-PROCLAIMED leaders of the new left formation want to solve the current problems in society with old recipes from the 1970s. They believe that Keynesianism can help tame capitalism. They do not accept what a disastrous state capitalism is in and what destructive dimensions the worldwide pressure to compete has taken on. The programmatic limitations and the restricted orientation towards parliamentary solutions could very soon mean a deadlock for the alliance. This would be the case if, for example, Lafontaine was to indicate that he would be ready to join or tolerate a coalition with the SPD and Greens.

Getting elected into parliament is as good as certain. It is even possible for the left alliance to score 10% or more of the votes. The bourgeois mass media will try to point at the internal contradictions of the alliance and will also point at the remnants of Stalinism inside the PDS. Still, there is a huge vacuum for a party that defends the interests of the working class, pensioners and unemployed. The hatred against the political establishment will manifest itself in a lot of votes for the new alliance.

Lafontaine only excluded a coalition with the SPD and the Greens for the forthcoming elections. It took the Greens ten years and the PDS five years in government to sell out their principles. This new formation will be watched very closely by the working class and will not get the same amount of time before workers walk away if it does not deliver. On the other hand, it is possible that the leaders of the left alliance will be pushed to the left by protests and the general mood of the working class.

The CDU announced a sort of poll tax for health services, an increase in VAT, a softening of laws that protect workers against redundancies and cutting down the rights of works’ councils. In the likely case of the CDU winning the elections in September, it will not be able to keep the trade unions in check as much as the Schröder government did.

Being in opposition – possibly, even, under a grand coalition of the CDU and SPD – would give Lafontaine and others the possibility to adopt a left rhetoric without having to do much. In case of a CDU-led government and a SPD in opposition, the WASG/PDS would need to adopt an even more left-wing rhetoric in order to differentiate itself.

This could lead to a further awakening in society. The mass movements against Hartz IV, the protests on shop floor level against Agenda 2010, wage cuts, redundancies and company closures, are now starting to find their political expression. The vacuum that exists for such a new party can no longer be denied.

The simple fact that there is going to be an alternative to neo-liberal ideas, will lead to an enormous politicisation of society. After years where talk-shows and political magazines echoed the same neo-liberal phraseology, millions will be delighted to finally hear and discuss different ideas. The confusion and lack of alternative that was dominant can now be replaced with new hope. The new developments will encourage resistance and public protest. If there is going to be a combative and lively election campaign, then there is a real chance that thousands of workers, unemployed and youth will move towards WASG and will start to play an active role. The dynamic that exists today needs to be seized by socialists. It is possible to prevent an adaptation to PDS policy by continuing to build WASG as an independent and self reliant party. A left and socialist wing needs to make sure that – instead of orientating towards the parliamentary work - WASG focuses on organising protest and resistance on the streets and in the workplaces.

The process of building a new workers’ party in Germany has reached a new dimension. What was seen as impossible for a long time is now feasible. Taking into account all the limitations of this joint candidacy, it still provides socialists with the possibilities to argue and fight for a clear socialist and anti-capitalist alternative. This will be the stepping stone for a new mass workers’ party that will genuinely defend the interests of the German working class.


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