The political situation in Germany is changing rapidly as one political earthquake has been followed by another over the last few days. In last Sunday’s regional elections, Chancellor Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost its traditional stronghold in North Rhine Westphalia (NRW). This amounts to a political whitewash as North Rhine Westphalia, the industrial heartland of Germany with 18 million inhabitants (which is more than in the former East German DDR), had been governed by the SPD since 1966. The SPD vote was down in this region from a peak of 5 million in the 1998 general election to merely 3 million in this regional election, whereas the Christian Democrats (CDU) received nearly 45% of the vote. The SPD saw their share of the vote fall to a level not seen since the mid-1950s.
This devastating electoral result is the consequence of Schröder’s right wing reformist policies which have made the rich richer and brought about hard attacks on the welfare state, especially on the unemployed and the sick. Whilst German employer federations were by and large quite happy with Schröder and his SPD-Green coalition government, even the tame union leaders of the DGB were forced to take to the streets last year on April 3 as 500,000 trade unionists demonstrated against the dismantling of the welfare state.
Just two hours after the closing of polling stations, as the dimensions of the defeat became more and more clear, Chancellor Schröder surprised everybody by announcing the dissolution of the Bundestag (the Federal Parliament) and an early election in September. In doing so, Schröder has de facto admitted the failure of his political perspectives and the policies of his government. Until a few days ago, the Schröderites would have argued that their “reforms” were hard and painful but that they would help to get the sluggish economy going again. Thus, by the autumn of 2006 every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the country would feel the benefits of the imminent economic upswing and return the Schröder government for a third term. On the road to victory in 2006, the Social Democrats and Greens would hold their bastions in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine Westphalia and win back the support they had lost since 2002. The dark reality is that the SPD and the Greens have lost both Schleswig-Holstein and NRW, thus losing any political backup and support from Germany’s second chamber of government, the Bundesrat. As the economic growth rate sits around or below 1 per cent, with over 5 million unemployed and growing uncertainty about the world economy, Schröder has obviously lost all faith in his perspectives.
The calling of early elections is a desperate gamble on Schröder’s part. It seems that Schröder and some party loyalists believe that against the background of opinion polls, which give the CDU a clear lead, a repetition of the “election miracle” in 2002 could be possible. It is true that against all odds and against all expectations Schröder narrowly won in 2002 (with the SPD winning by just 6000 votes) on the basis of his opposition to the war in Iraq and the floods in East Germany, which strengthened a general mood of solidarity and highlighted environmental issues. Yet this time unemployment and the low performance of the German economy dominate the public debate and have pushed Schröder onto the defensive. It is not surprising that after years of neo-liberal policies under Schröder the CDU and liberal FDP feel strengthened, and as we have seen in North Rhine Westphalia, some politically backward workers are prepared to give the CDU a chance to test their policies and see if they work.
Schröder’s strategy is also aimed at undermining left-wing criticism within the SPD which is inevitable after the defeat in North Rhine Westphalia. Some left-wing MPs have indeed called for a fundamental change of course and a reversal of the anti-working class legislation of the last two years. If it had not been for the early election, there would be an open rebellion in the party by now and it would be difficult to predict the outcome of these internal battles. However, most of these soft lefts will now keep their mouths shut in the pre-election period.
At the same time, some superficial anti-capitalist phrase-mongering by Franz Müntefering (the SPD party chairman who took over from Schröder just over a year ago) in recent weeks shows that leading SPD figures are preparing for a new period in opposition when they will resort to more left wing speeches in order to prevent the party from falling apart and in order to try to rebuild the support they lost while in office. Faced with the fear of an erosion of support for the SPD and a possible split in the party, party apparatchiks like Müntefering favour an early election because a premature loss of government positions (which is the most likely perspective for September) will help to stabilise the party for the time being. When Müntefering’s recent public criticism of the parasitic behaviour of finance capital shocked and appalled some big business spokesmen and the media, more than two thirds of the population felt that Müntefering was right but that he was dishonest and that he was not really serious about his criticism. To underline this general feeling, Müntefering explicitly stated last week that all this discussion was not about concrete legislation but about general moral values and party principles.
While leading right wing Social Democrats like Schröder and his crew will be compensated with lavish pensions once they are kicked out of office and will probably be offered better paid management or consulting positions by big business, it is the working class that will suffer under a right-wing coalition government. A CDU/Liberal government will speed up the attacks on all the gains achieved by the working class over the last 50 years. On many issues such as unemployment, tuition fees, education, healthcare, trade union rights etc., the right wing has put forward an even harder line than the SPD, yet it is Schröder’s “merit” to have ushered in such a turn to right from above. It is especially the FDP leaders who have come out with demagogic anti-trade union slogans, denouncing the unions as a plague and threatening to eliminate any legal and political influence of the unions.
In last Sunday’s regional elections in NRW the two left-wing slates (the PDS and the newly founded WASG, a party of disenchanted Social Democrats, trade unionists and other leftists) scored only 0.9 or 2.2 percent respectively. “Good old Oskar” has now reappeared on the political arena only two days after the NRW election. On Tuesday, Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD chairman (until 1999) and a popular left-wing critic of Schröder’s policy since then, announced his resignation from the SPD and his intention to stand for a left-wing alliance in the forthcoming election. He pointed out that his model for a left alliance was the Italian Ulivo (Olive Tree) alliance. His call for such a left-wing block is oriented at both the PDS (which is still predominantly a party of the East and only received 4% of the national vote in 2002) and the WASG (which is very weak in the East and on its own hardly stands a chance of passing the 5 percent minimum national threshold required for a party to get any parliamentary seats). Although there are conflicts and rivalries between the two parties (as well as important internal conflicts within both organisations), the mood for unity is building amongst the rank and file as both Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, the former PDS chairman (these two being the most popular and eloquent figures on the left) seem to be prepared to lead such a left alliance in the election campaign.
In this election Marxists should and will call for an all-out mobilisation to prevent a Christian Democratic/Liberal government and for a red majority on a socialist programme. The most important task, however, will be to hammer home the need for a break with the stranglehold of big business. We shall patiently explain that even Lafontaine’s ideas of left reforms and taxation of the rich would inevitably lead to a big confrontation and clash with big business and that the only solution is the socialist transformation of society.