Early elections in Germany: Social Democrats faced with a new left wing competitor

Schröder has dissolved the Bundestag and has called early elections for September 18. Polls show a drastic fall in the SPD vote and the most likely outcome seems a victory of the right wing Christian Democrats. But on the left a new formation is emerging, the Left Alliance, made up of the PDS (former Communist Party of East Germany) and the WASG, a left split of disenchanted social democrats and trade unionists, and the former leader of the left of the SPD, Oskar Lafontaine, is preparing to be its main leader. The crisis of German capitalism is preparing the ground for greater instability and a polarization of German society.

On July 1, chancellor Schröder asked the Bundestag (German parliament) for a vote of confidence and made sure he would not get it. This manoeuvre was designed to enable the German president to legally dissolve the Bundestag and clear the way for early elections due on September 18. Though the president has not issued any declaration yet, almost everybody is expecting the elections to be held in two months’ time.

Schröder’s move amounts to a desperate gamble and reminds us of the suicide attacks performed by Japanese Kamikazes in WWII. It seems pretty certain that after 7 years of counter-reformism under Schröder the Christian Democrats are likely to win the elections and take over the government, possibly in coalition with the FDP (Liberals). Unlike in Britain, it is not very common for a head of government to take the initiative and dissolve parliament long before the official end of the parliamentary term. Yet after the disastrous election defeat of the Social Democrats in their former stronghold in North Rhine Westphalia in May, Schröder forced through his line against all the odds and criticisms in the party. Critics state that in doing this, Schröder is voluntarily handing over the government positions to the right wing parties, thus ushering in a new round of attacks on all the gains achieved by the labour movement over decades.

But whereas those legendary and courageous Japanese Kamikaze pilots sacrificed their lives, Schröder will find an easy and comfortable individual way out for himself with a nice big pension and excellent business links, leaving behind his party, the social democratic SPD, shattered, weakened and demoralised. Recent opinion polls give the SPD a meagre share of the votes somewhere between 26 and 27 percent, whereas the Christian Democrats are expected to score some 42 to 47 percent. The most interesting feature in these opinion polls, however, lies in the fact that the new left electoral alliance could possibly overtake both the Greens and the Liberals and become the third biggest parliamentary party. This alliance of the (still mainly Eastern based) PDS and the newly formed WASG, a left split of disenchanted social democrats and trade unionists, could expect to get well over 10 percent of the votes cast if the opinion polls are not mistaken. In the East (the former DDR) the Left Alliance could emerge as the strongest party and score 31 percent, whereas in the West they are estimated to get around 7 per cent (which is an enormous step forward by Western standards).

Schröder’s hasty rush for early elections has precipitated the formation of the Left Alliance between the PDS and WASG. The leading bodies of both organisations have agreed to stand on a common slate (i.e. WASG candidates will be included on PDS slates) and aim at a merger in the next two years. It is likely that the organs and rank and file on both sides will ratify this process in the next few days.

After 7 years of Schröder’s Blairite policies, many workers and youth are looking towards the new Left Alliance to take up their social discontent and give the widespread social uneasiness a political expression. But there is also the subjective factor of Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD chairman (1995-99) who had resigned from all his political positions in 1999 after a big political clash with Schröder in the cabinet. One day after the SPD disaster in North Rhine Westphalia, Lafontaine finally announced his resignation from the SPD and his willingness to lead the Left Alliance into the electoral battle this summer. Lafontaine is now likely to make a political and parliamentary comeback as the leading spokesman of the Left Alliance. It is true that he never regarded himself as a socialist or Marxist and like most others in the WASG still describes himself as a social democrat. Yet for many workers and long standing SPD supporters he represents a more left wing and more credible version of traditional social democracy and a mouthpiece of ordinary workers, the poor and the victims of the neoliberal offensive. Another prominent leader of the new Left Alliance is Gregor Gysi, former PDS leader and an eloquent speaker who enjoys some popularity especially in the East. Up and down the country you can hear people say that this time they will “vote for Oskar and Gregor”, many of whom did not bother to vote at all in the last few years.

The likely rise of the Left Alliance and Lafontaine’s possible comeback has already set the alarm bells ringing in the SPD headquarters. While launching pathetic attacks on Lafontaine’s “populism”, leading SPD bureaucrats at the same time have tried to take up some left wing phraseology in their election manifesto and with the help of national union leaders they are trying to polish up their image as the only reliable representative of the working class.

Yet in the end, Schröder and co. are asking the electorate for a mandate to continue their so-called “reforms”. Those reforms, however, have failed to deliver the goods as they have enriched the capitalist class and the top 10 per cent of society, impoverished the unemployed and have not ushered in the promised boom which would create new jobs.

Job losses continue in virtually all sectors of the economy. The employers are using the fear of unemployment to squeeze more and more concessions out of the workers and undermine the unions. Whereas through a determined struggle the print workers have recently defended the 35 hour week (though some major concessions were made on other fronts), other unions have given in without a fight and even agreed to increase the working week without increasing wages.

When Schröder took over from Kohl in 1998, he promised to tackle the problem of unemployment. With his bourgeois methods, he has utterly failed. Against the background of 4.7 million officially unemployed (nearly 10 per cent), Schröder’s rush for early elections is an expression of the fact that he no longer believes in his own perspectives. Until recently, Schröder had raised hopes that his painful operations (“reforms”) would usher in a new and sustained boom and a job miracle by 2006 and thus easily return his government in late 2006 as everybody would feel and see the blessings of his policies.

Many union activists and regional union organisations are no longer swallowing the logic of grinding their teeth and accepting the SPD as “the lesser evil”; Lafontaine has been invited to speak at regional union meetings and in factory assemblies and put forward his ideas.

Under this pressure of a critical mood, even the Greens who had rapidly degenerated into a modern version of liberalism in recent years have used a more left wing phrase mongering in recent weeks and underlined their concern for social rather than ecological issues.

With the likely elections two months ahead, things appear very volatile in German society. It is true that Schröder’s reformism without reforms strengthens the Christian democrats and there is a certain mood for a change, but there is no enthusiasm about the Christian Democrats and their programme at all as some politically backward workers tend to give them a chance but at the same time do not really expect any major improvement from a future bourgeois coalition. Some observers do not even exclude the possibility that given the unexpected strength of the Left Alliance and the mobilisation of previous non-voters there could be a sort of “hung parliament” which would give rise to a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. The SPD leaders have categorically excluded any cooperation with the Left Alliance in the coming parliamentary term.

The Marxist position

In this election campaign, the Marxists will give critical support to the Left Alliance and put forward slogans against the bourgeois parties and for a left majority in the Bundestag on a socialist programme. The emergence of a strong left opposition in the coming Bundestag will be a step forward for the movement. Yet we must not give the shortsighted reformist leaders and would-be careerists of that alliance a blank cheque. We shall use the election period and the coming months to hammer home the need to link all the concrete left demands to the question of which class holds power in society. With the enormous level of state indebtedness and given the recent shift of wealth to the benefit of the upper 10 per cent even a tame reformist programme cannot be realised within the constraints of capitalism.

We shall fight for a class approach within the Left Alliance and for the future left MPs to live on the average wage of skilled workers. Once elected as a new parliamentary party, the Left Alliance must resist all temptations to become a junior partner of a post-Schröder-SPD in the medium term but rather seek to win over the SPD and union rank and file to a programme of radical socialist transformation of society.