European Elections in Germany: SPD stumbling from defeat to defeat

The vote for the German SPD in the recent European elections revealed a disastrous collapse. It is the price the party pays for pushing a Blairite agenda of cuts and attacks on the welfare state. The German workers do not want this. Large numbers abstained, rather than vote for the Christian Democrats, who also lost votes. On the left, the PDS recovered from its bad showing in 1999.

With their policies of counter-reformism, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder were amongst the main losers in the European Elections. In Germany, for the first time ever since the Second World War, the SPD scored no more than 21.5 per cent of the votes cast in a nationwide election on June 13. Given the low voter turnout of merely 43 per cent, this means that the SPD received the support of no more than 9 per cent of the total electorate!

The drastic erosion becomes clearly visible when you look at the absolute figures. In 1998, the SPD won the national elections with the support of over 20 million voters. In 2002, they just clung to office on the basis of 16.5 million votes cast. On June 13, 2004, no more than 5.5 million voted for Schröder's party. Thus, within less than two years, support for the SPD has declined by two thirds.

Unlike some permanent optimists and most SPD leaders assume, this is not yet the end of a series of election defeats. Further unpleasant surprises are inevitable at regional and local elections in the coming autumn, winter, and spring. Yet leading Social Democrats such as Schröder and his cabinet ministers as well as the new party chairman Franz Müntefering and most MPs still believe that their policy of dismantling the welfare state will sooner or later usher in a sustainable boom and that every Tom, Dick and Harry will eventually understand the blessings of their decisions and then return the coalition of SPD and Greens in the 2006 general election.

In reality, the right wing bourgeois Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU, the main opposition in parliament), thanks to Schröder's policy, will have a two-thirds majority in the second chamber, the Bundesrat, as soon as the SPD loses the elections in Schleswig-Holstein and Northrhine-Westfalia in the first months of 2005. Thus, the CDU/CSU will be in a position to block any major legislation by the Bundestag. However, the Euro election results have also revealed that there is not a swing from the SPD towards the CDU/CSU since the CDs also lost 1.7 million votes in comparison with the last Euro elections in 1999. Thus there is no general swing to the right. Though extreme right wing parties with their racist slogans managed to get well over 5 per cent in some industrial towns, their national vote is still rather insignificant.

Green vote

Whereas the SPD got a merciless hammering for Schröder's counter-reformism, the Greens, Schröder's junior partner, came out of the election enormously strengthened. In some university towns, inner city areas, and trendy suburbs of major cities, the Greens defeated all the other parties and emerged as the number one. This is, however, not necessarily an indication of a left protest vote. It is true that the Greens were founded some 25 years ago as a somewhat left protest party and attracted a layer of youth who were frustrated with the then SPD/Liberal coalition government. Entire Maoist sects with thousands of supporters dissolved themselves into the Greens at that time, and in the 1980s genuine left youth turned towards the Greens in their search for a radical and ecological alternative. However, most of the sincere lefts have long since deserted the party. Many of the radical students of the 1970s and 1980s are now well paid grammar school teachers, professors, architects, civil servants, IT specialists and professionals who have absorbed individualism and in all major class issues have a standpoint even to the right of the SPD leaders. Green leaders and activists in most cases have nothing to do with trade unions, the working class, old age pensioners and the poor. They do not (yet) suffer from the attacks on the welfare state - they can afford to buy expensive health food and are happy with some gestures by the Green ministers who appear to be struggling for a better environment, for windmill generators instead of nuclear power stations, for organic farming etc. The Greens are just another liberal party now, slightly more enlightened and more multi-cultural and "progressive" on immigrant rights and civil liberties than the traditional liberals (FDP - Free Democrats). Increasingly these days one hears leading Christian Democrats state that they could conceive of coalition governments with the Greens in the not too distant future!

PDS

From the point of view of many activists in the smaller socialist party, the PDS, the fate of their party largely depended on the outcome of the Euro elections. Their defeat in the 2002 Bundestag election and manoeuvres by the party apparatus to oust the hard left had caused a major crisis and the defection of many honest left-wingers. If they had not managed to score a minimum of 5 per cent necessary to get parliamentary representation, the erosion process that has been taking place for some two years would have been accelerated. In the end they got 6.1 per cent end even eclipsed the liberal FDP. However, this figure only reflects a modest growth of 12,000 votes over the 1999 European Elections in absolute terms. The PDS vote in the West amounted to a total of 325,000 or 1.6 per cent, whereas in Eastern cities like Erfurt, Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg they won the Euro Elections and also the local elections that took place at the same time. In the East, the PDS gained an overall vote of some 25 per cent, whereas the SPD was down to merely 15 per cent.

Against the national trend, the PDS lost votes in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where they are in local coalition governments with the SPD that are carrying out harsh cuts in social spending and education. Elsewhere, in the state parliaments of Thüringen (Thuringia), Sachsen (Saxony) and Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt), the PDS plays the role of the leading opposition party. It is in effect an Eastern version of a social democratic party.

However, it would be wrong to say that the moderate social democratic elements are in total control within the PDS apparatus. Two of the 7 future MEPs elected on the PDS slate were nominated against the will and determination of the party apparatus: Tobias Pflüger, a radical anti-militarist and leading figure in the anti-war movement, and Sahra Wagenknecht, a representative of the "Communist platform" within the PDS. This is especially the case with Sahra Wagenknecht, who has been presented by the bourgeois media as a "hopeless case of a Communist nostalgic", and who got a warm and positive reception when she spoke in well over 100 election meetings and rallies in the East and West and put forward class issues.

What will happen to the SPD?

Although Chancellor Schröder does not see any reason to change course as a consequence of the elections, the lower ranks of the party, overwhelmed by the erosion of support locally and regionally, are beginning to voice fundamental criticism. At regional conferences and meetings in Hessen, the Saarland, and Hamburg last weekend, the main demand was for a change in course in favour of working people and a brake on all further anti-working class legislation in the context of Schröder's "Agenda 2010". At the same time, a national conference of well over 500 union activists, SPD dissidents, retired union leaders, ATTAC activists, some sectarian groups and other politically "homeless" people in Berlin discussed plans for setting up a new political party, or rather an “electoral alternative” (Wahlalternative/ASG), to defend the welfare state. Whether this grouping will develop into a viable left political formation with some mass base, however, remains to be seen. So far, the political statements of their leaders seem to indicate that they want to go back to the good old days of the welfare state under Willy Brandt in the 1970s, and not forward towards a genuine socialist democracy. Their programmatic statements are to the right of the PDS programme. Yet given the political vacuum and the weakness of the PDS in the West they are attracting the interest of thousands of disenchanted (former) long-standing SPD members and (ex) SPD supporters. At the same time, things can also change within the SPD. In the Saarland, Oskar Lafontaine, former party chairman and Minister of Finance who resigned after a bitter conflict with Schröder five years ago, seems to be preparing for a political comeback. At the regional party congress last Sunday Lafontaine got standing ovations for his critical remarks on Schröder's policy whereas party chairman Franz Müntefering, defending the "party line", got a very weak applause. Many desperate party activists and supporters hope that sooner or later "good old Oskar" will return to national politics and save the party's soul.

In effect what we are talking about is three different brands of social democracy and reformism (SPD, PDS, Wahlalternative/ASG). Marxists argue that the decisive task is not to construct yet another brand of Social Democracy with vague ideas but to establish a firm foundation for Marxist ideas within the labour movement. Any government, movement or pressure group that seriously tries to return to the welfare state of the 1970s and reverse the process of privatisation and the shift in wealth from the poor to the rich will have to face and overcome the resistance of the ruling class. Venezuela shows that a revolutionary perspective is required in order to carry out and defend real reforms in the interest of working people. If you are serious about changing living conditions to the benefit of the vast majority, you cannot ignore these basic lessons of history.