German elections usher in a new period of instability

Sunday’s elections reveal an enormous shift within the German electorate. Of particular importance is the massive decline of the SPD vote, mirrored by a huge increase in support for DIE LINKE which stands to its left. The victory of the right-wing parties means the German capitalists are preparing for an offensive against the biggest and most powerful working class in Europe. Interesting times lie ahead.

German big business will now get the sort of government they prefer: a coalition of the two traditional bourgeois parties - the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Liberals (FDP) based on a stable majority of seats in the new Parliament (Bundestag) elected on September 27.

It is not an accident that on the morning after the elections the share prices of the two main electricity suppliers, RWE and E.on, went up sharply as the companies are hoping that the new coalition will strengthen nuclear power as a highly profitable source of energy and allow the old plants to continue production for many more years.

Bankers and industrialists are also happy now that the SPD has been so discredited by their actions that big business won`t have to make any deals with them. Against the background of a deep crisis and impending mass redundancies, workers, unemployed, pensioners, students, and youth, i.e. the overwhelming majority of the population, will suffer. The bourgeois parties now control the Bundestag as well as the Bundesrat, Germany`s second chamber based on the representatives from the 16 federal states, and they have the Federal President on their side as well.

This is a landmark and milestone as after 11 years in office, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) received a devastating vote and will now end up in opposition. At the same time, the arch-neoliberal FDP will be back in office for the first time since 1998 when the last CDU/CSU/FDP coalition government was defeated by an alliance of the SPD and the Greens.

The FDP is the purest of the bourgeois parties – in the sense that it directly represents big business ‑ and it is going to exert a decisive influence within the new government, as they saved Chancellor Merkel's office, and have provided her with the key number of votes to be able to remain in office.

While the SPD lost 11.2 per cent and has been thrown back to the level it had back in 1893, the CDU/CSU also lost quite a few votes last Sunday. It was only the spectacular 4.7 per cent growth of the FDP and the peculiarities of the electoral systems that gave the bourgeois camp a relatively cosy majority of 332 out of 622 seats.

This was an election of negative records: the lowest turnout in any national election since World War II and the biggest loss of any party in the last 60 years. Only 70.8 per cent bothered to vote this time. With 23 per cent of the votes cast for the SPD they scored much worse than even in 1953 when they won over 28 per cent.

An indication of how drastic the SPD losses are, is revealed by the following figure: in 1998 ‑ when the CDU/CSU and FDP lost their majority after 16 years in office and there was a strong wind of change ‑ the SPD won more than 20 million votes. Last Sunday they got less than ten million, losing more than half of their support over the last 11 years.

This is a severe blow and the result of 11 years of “reformism without reforms” – in reality counter-reforms ‑ to the detriment of workers, the unemployed and pensioners. When the then SPD-Greens coalition, led by the right-wing Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, lost its majority in 2005, the SPD leaders sought to cling to power through a "Grand Coalition" with the CDU/CSU. The result has been a severe crisis of the SPD that is assuming historic dimensions.

Workers are not stupid and have not forgotten that in the 2005 election campaign the SPD agitated against the "Merkel tax", i.e. the CDU/CSU proposal to increase VAT by 2 per cent. However, eventually the Grand Coalition agreed to increase VAT by three per cent. That was indeed a “compromise” whereby you end up conceding more than was being asked for originally!

On nearly all fronts, the SPD leaders have been doing the dirty work for the capitalists and as a consequence they are responsible for pushing the SPD into a deep crisis. Considering the recent role of these leaders, why should any worker in the recent election campaign have shown any enthusiasm for SPD leaders such as Franz Münterfering and Frank Steinmeier who are ossified Schröderites and Blairites and decisive architects of Schröder`s programme of counter-reforms known as "Agenda 2010"? During the recent election campaign, the SPD leaders refused point blank to raise the idea of collaboration with the Left Party (DIE LINKE) and in fact were hoping that they would be needed to patch together another Grand Coalition. How could any party activist find the will to fight for such a perspective? Just one example of the mood at the rank and file level I witnessed a day before the election. I met a fulltime SPD party worker and loyalist and she told me that she would rather see a majority CDU/CSU and FDP government, because the continuation of a Grand Coalition would virtually destroy the party. This was symptomatic of the mood of party activists.

Oskar Lafontaine during the election campaign in Saxony. Photo by Die Linke Sachsen.Oskar Lafontaine during the election campaign in Saxony. Photo by Die Linke Sachsen. Immediately after the historic defeat last Sunday, some SPD left-wingers, Young Socialists and rank and file party structures began to voice their desire for a fundamental political change and a new and more credible leadership. However, it still remains to be seen whether the SPD left will come out of this strong and determined enough to wage a revolt in the party before the November national party conference, raising their own independent programme and standing candidates against the right-wing leaders. Back in 1995, Oskar Lafontaine successfully challenged and defeated the then right-wing party leader Rudolf Scharping in the leadership election with a fiery left-wing speech which motivated the rank and file and laid the basis for the 1998 election victory. Lafontaine subsequently broke with the SPD in 2004 and is now the leader of DIE LINKE. It remains to be seen whether there is anybody of a similar calibre in the SPD today. The official spokespersons of the SPD "left" appear to be quite tame and timid, and so far do not seem to be up to the task.

On the other hand, the fact that DIE LINKE got a double-digit result is of historical significance for Germany, as there has not been any workers´ party of considerable strength to the left of the SPD since the 1930s.

Because of this, once again, the mainstream media and right-wing politicians tried to launch an anti-communist and red scare campaign against DIE LINKE during the last few weeks, but failed to achieve their objective. DIE LINKE grew by more than a million votes ‑ from 4.1 to over 5.1 million ‑ and not only consolidated its historical base of support in the East at around 28%, but it has also built a base in all parts of the country, gaining well over ten or even 15 per cent in many working class and inner city areas in the West. In the East, the former DDR [German Democratic Republic], DIE LINKE has decisively eclipsed the SPD which was down from 30.4% to 17.9% of the votes cast. DIE LINKE attracted above all the votes of workers and of the unemployed (31 per cent of the latter), thus consolidating a solid class base. In the East there is in fact still no majority for the bourgeois parties. In the West, DIE LINKE has increased its share from 4.9% to 8.3%.

What is significant, and also an expression of the increasing political change and instability, is the fact that the two traditionally "big" parties ‑ SPD and CDU/CSU ‑ have both seen their support melt away. Whereas in the past they could always secure some 80 or 90 per cent between them, they now do not even reach 60 per cent nationally, let alone a two thirds majority. In both camps, of the "left" and the "right", the "smaller", and apparently more consistent, parties gained and benefitted from the disappointment of the electorate with the two main big parties. This shows that traditional ties and loyalties are increasingly being dissolved.

DIE LINKE needs a socialist programme and must raise the question of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy as a decisive lever to get out of the blind alley of capitalism. Photo by DIE LINKE.DIE LINKE needs a socialist programme and must raise the question of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy as a decisive lever to get out of the blind alley of capitalism. Photo by DIE LINKE. For the traditional bourgeois voters and conservative CDU/CSU/FDP supporters, there was an apparent wind of change and a clear reason for them to vote. The triumphant shouts of the right-wing leaders, however, must not divert attention away from the fact that against the background of a low turnout of 70.8 per cent, the combined vote of the right of 48.4 per cent in reality merely represents around 34.3 per cent of the total electorate, a significant fall in real active support for these parties. When the bourgeois parties scored a historic victory in the 1983 election ‑ a victory that ushered in a decade and a half of right wing dominance – they won 55.8 per cent of the votes cast with a high turnout of nearly 90 per cent, they enjoyed the support of 49.7 per cent of the total electorate. This indicates that the mass base for Merkel´s new right-wing cabinet is considerably slimmer than that of the Kohl government in the 1980s.

Another feature in this election is to be found in the fact that the extreme right-wing and neo-fascist parties were hammered and between them only scored a total of two percent. Even in the East where the biggest of them, the Hitlerite NPD, had built some base in certain areas, their vote shrunk from 3.6 to 3.1 per cent. In the West they stagnated to around 1.1 percent.

The new Merkel government will quickly have to show what it has to offer under conditions of capitalist crisis. Lafontaine and other left leaders are predicting that a new economic crash will come inevitably. Mass redundancies will sharply increase unemployment in the coming months. The new government will make the workers pay for the crisis and for the rescue operation to bail out the banks.

All this will undoubtedly increase social unrest in the country. The union leaders, who had hoped that their friends at the top of the SPD would remain in the government and thus leave open a channel for their diplomatic talks and petitions, will find themselves in a situation in which they have to mobilise their rank and file to fight back against attacks.

DIE LINKE is now faced with an enormous responsibility. Many workers who are fed up with the SPD are looking towards the party. Thousands will join, and the party now needs to organise a sound basis in workplaces, unions, neighbourhoods, schools and social movements. Above all, DIE LINKE needs a socialist programme and must raise the question of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy as a decisive lever to get out of the blind alley of capitalism.


Election results at a glance

Total turnout
70. 8%