Germany: Merkel's victory – What does it mean?

German chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) celebrated a sweeping victory in the German federal elections held last Sunday. On the basis of an 7.8 percent swing the CDU/CSU scored over 18 million votes and a share of 41.5 percent – their best result in national elections for 20 years. Yet due to the German system of proportional representation this massive swing was not big enough to secure an overall majority of seats for the CDU/CSU in the new Bundestag, the federal parliament based in the old Reichstag building in Berlin. 

This lack of a clear majority of seats for the traditional bourgeois parties is mainly due to the fact that the FDP (Liberal Party) which had been in Merkel's coalition government for the last four years suffered a humiliating defeat as their support melted away from 14.6 to merely 4.8 percent of the votes cast. They lost their entire parliamentary basis. Since a party in Germany requires a minimum share of five percent in national and regional elections before any seats are allocated. The 4.8 percent score represents a historic defeat for the FDP, a bourgeois party which has served as the direct mouthpiece of big business and the top one percent of society over the last decades. 

On the other hand, the SPD which a few months ago prided itself for its labour movement traditions and a history of 150 years did not really recover from its historic 23 percent defeat suffered in 2009. The SPD's share of 25,7 percent still represents the second worst score in any national election since World War II. On the electoral plane the party has been thrown back in fact by 100 years. This is above all the result of the reformism without reforms or rather reformism with counterreforms carried out by the coalition government of SPD and Greens led by (ex chancellor) Gerhard Schröder (SPD) from 1998 to 2005. With their “reforms” of the labour market they had ushered in a massive casualisation of labour in Germany and attacks on the unemployed. Now a quarter of the workforce have some sort of casual jobs, many of them with wages just about or below the poverty line. Many of them need more than one job to survive or need additional social security to pay their rents. This is – by the way – the main and principal explanation for the alleged German “job miracle”. There is a deepening split between workers and employees in relatively safe jobs and an increasing number of casual labourers. German variants of soup kitchens (“Tafeln”) where welfare institutions and volunteers hand out free food to the unemployed and working poor are springing up like mushrooms all over the country. At the same time the gap between the classes, between rich and poor, is wider than ever. 

When Schröder lost his majority in 2005, the SPD leaders sought refuge in a coalition with the CDU/CSU which ushered in “reforms” such as the increase of the retirement age to 67 years and an increase of the VAT from 16 to 19 percent. It is true that the 2013 SPD election manifesto promised to “correct” some of the worst aspects of their past government records and anti working class legislation and campaigned for a minimum wage of 8.50 Euro and against the “abuse” of “labour leasing”. Yet Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate for chancellor, represented the old Schröderite/Blairite right wing of the SPD and thus did not appeal to millions of workers who used to support the SPD in past decades and have turned away in different directions since then. Whereas the SPD had re-conquered their leadership in government in 1998 with the backing of over 20 million voters primarily from the working classs and youth, they scored merely 11.2 million votes last Sunday. The Greens, too, who would have liked to return into a coalition with the SPD this time, suffered losses and remain miles away from the temporary hype they scored mainly in 2011 when environmetal issues became a decisive point of public interest after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima (Japan). 

DIE LINKE emerged as third biggest party

If Merkel succeeds in forming a coalition with the SPD in the coming weeks, DIE LINKE (Left Party) will become the biggest parliamentary opposition party nationally. With an 8.6 percent share DIE LINKE eclipsed the Greens. After a series of humiliating defeats in Western regional elections since 2011, the party has managed to stabilize its electoral position in the West last Sunday where they scored over five percent in all the federal states with the exception of the Southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg which turned out to be bastions of the CDU/CSU. Yet while party activists celebrated the 8.6 per cent result on Sunday night we must not forget that DIE LINKE has also suffered losses since 2009. Their electoral support has shrunk over the last four years from 5.2 million to merely 3.8 million voters last Sunday (see table below). 

While there is a numerical combined majority of seats for the SPD, Greens and DIE LINKE in the new Bundestag, it is unlikely at this stage that such a “red-red-green” coalition would be formed. Leading representatives of the SPD and Greens have repeated again and again that DIE LINKE was “not ready for government responsibility” due to their “utopian” positions in the election manifesto mainly on issues of foreign and military policy.

DIE LINKE is demanding a withdrawal of all German troops from abroad, a ban on arms production and arms exports, a dissolution of NATO and a strict opposition to the neoliberal agenda pursued by the EU commission and a “No” to all of the “rescue programmes” that have thrown back Greece by generations. Yet representatives of the right wing in DIE LINKE such as Stefan Liebich, an MP from Berlin who has been returned to the Bundestag winning a majority in his constituency, would like to water down the party line on foreign policy and military issues (“humanitarian military interventions”) to make the party compatible for future federal governments. Yet Liebich still represents a minority in the party. 

DIE LINKE parliamentary leader Gregor Gysi who is an eloquent man and was featured as the most important public face in the election campaign, keeps demanding that the SPD should “return to a social democratic policy” to lay the basis for a future cooperation nationally. Whereas there is growing uneasiness among the SPD rank and file about the perspectives for the party as a junior partner under Merkel, it seems likely that the new generation of SPD leaders such as party chairman Sigmar Gabriel and General Secretary Andrea Nahles will be hungry for ministerial portfolios in a cabinet led by Merkel and try to get some programmatic deals and cosmetic concessions from Merkel to justify what they are doing.

But the German economy is based on weak foundations, increasingly dependent on exports, threatened by the European crisis while the performance of the BRIC economies is slowing down. It is more likely that there will be a rude awakening of the German working class to the real situation facing German capitalism. Merkel will not be able to keep up undefinitely her motherly smile but will have to show her true face while proceeding to inflict deep attacks on the conditions of living of millions of Germans. 

Thus, DIE LINKE is faced with an enormous challenge. The task for socialists is not to prepare for entering the government in 2017, or to appeal to the socialdemocratic leaders for a more human policy under capitalism, but to offer a clear left, socialist answer and to sink firm roots in the working class, preparing for the big conflicts and battles that lie ahead.

Why did Merkel win?

Some on the left nationally and internationally view last Sunday's election as a major “shift to the right”. Yet reality is more complicated than that. Within the electoral base and camp of the classical bourgeois parties there has beean a shift away from the FDP which has been seen as the pure version of big business representative and barefaced, more fanatic variant of bourgeois politics and neo-liberalism. Merkel has been presented as the nation's “friendly and benign mum” who is on good terms with everybody, avoiding binding statements and polarisation and blinding less political sections of the working class and old age pensioners with her new-speak. 

Whereas Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, an old CDU warhorse, are the most hated politicians in countries such as Greece, Spain or Portugal, they have skillfully avoided the sort of attacks on the working class at home that they are imposing to Southern European governments. The major line of the German ruling class and their representatives in the Berlin administration is still to prevent an all-out confrontation with the unions. 

Attacks on labour laws such as undermining job protection or the rights of unions and their workplace representatives in the works councils – which are the rule in all European countries – are not yet on the order of the day in Germany. At the recent big Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) top industrialists of the mighty German car industry praised the engineering union IG Metall for its “moderation” on the wage front and higlighted the blessings of the German system of participation and co-management (“Mitbestimmung”). The majority line of the capitalist class is obvious: rather than confronting the top union leaders (as Thatcher, Murdoch and FIAT managers did) it is “wiser” to use and include them in the “club” to get concessions from them on the negotiating table. 

This does not mean, however, that there is no class struggle taking place in Germany. Every week there are provocations by bosses, strikes and conflicts here and there. Shopworkers are fighting to defend collective bargaining and the levels of income and concessions in the old contract whereas the big supermarkets and department stores aim at lowering the wages considerably. Scandals about slave labour conditions of migrant workers from Southern and Eastern Europe and casual labourers in German slaughterhouses, mail-order businesses and even luxury car manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes have found an enormous public echo in recent months. But there is still no generalised strike or protest movement that could have set the tone in the election campaign and Merkel so far has been clever enough to take up some of the social uneasiness and promise some amelioration. She did her utmost to present the “bright side of life” in Germany (especially when compared with the crisis crippling most of the other European countries) and to make sure that the bad news will be announced after the elections

Since there is no real alternative posed other than accepting Merkel as a “shield” against an even worse crisis, and the careful attempt not to provoke confrontation with the German workers before the election, it is not surprising that Merkel's position has been strengthened, although there was no enthusiasm at the CDU/CSU rallies. Her election propaganda created the impression that Germany had done relatively well against the background of the crisis all over Europe and that the country should be kept in “good hands”, thus avoiding any “experiments”.

While the extreme right wing and openly neo-fascist party NPD did badly in the elections nationally and despite some strongholds in the East remains a one-percenter, it is an interesting fact that due to abstentions and an increased vote for smaller parties well over 40 percent of the population are not represented by the parliamentary parties. The biggest surprise, hovewer, is the emergence of the new so-called “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), a reactionary bourgeois party with an “Anti Euro” profile which was only set up half a year ago. The AfD is based on some conservative former CDU politicians and lead by arch neo-liberal think tanks and economists who favour the exit of Southern European countries from the Euro. Within a  few months the party has managed to pick up over two million votes from disoriented workers and above all sections of the middle class who feel uneasy about the coming economic crisis and fear to loose their savings due to inflation and a possible crash of the financial system. Though the AfD failed to reach the five percent threshold, a result of 4,7 percent out of the blue is a remarkable score. 

While decisive sections of the ruling class and industry still support Merkel`s mainstream line to keep the Euro zone together and thus save export markets for German industry, some serious bourgeois elements are thinking about alternatives beyond the present Euro zone. One of the most prominent AfD supporters is Hans-Olaf Henkel, former president of the German industrialists' federation BDI. The AfD leaders could base themselves upon sections of the ruling class in the future and become a „second eleven“ to attract disenchanted voters. It is likely that they will now prepare for another battle in the coming election to the European Parliament next spring and aim at a far better result then. 

What next?

The fact that the AfD seems to have attracted votes even from ex-supporters of DIE LINKE should serve as a warning. This underlines the need to highlight more than ever the party's programmatic call for the nationalisation of banks under democratic control. DIE LINKE is the only party that opposes cuts in the welfare state and privatisations. Yet the programme is basicly of a left reformist character and far from presenting an alternative socialist society or a bold transitional programme. At the party conference last June there was a hell of a fight between the right and left wing even to get the demand for a renationalisation of the Post Office (Deutsche Post) and Deutsche Telekom passed with a narrow majority.

It is likely that the general crisis of European capitalism and the tendency towards over-production will affect German much more in the coming years and shake the foundations of any illusions in a good life under capitalism that exist at the present time. We must not be blinded by the temporary electoral success of the CDU/CSU as there is a general trend away from deep-rooted loyalty towards traditional political parties and moods can change very quickly. The FDP, the Greens and the Pirate Party have all had their temporary hypes and have seen their support soar and melt away within a short period of time. Instability will be the prevailing feauture on the economic, social, and political plane. The class struggle is far from dead and will become a central issue in German everyday life in the years that lie ahead.

Table: Federal elections Germany 2013, second vote

 Absolute numbers%Gains/Losses in percentage
Wahlberechtigte – persons entitled to vote 61.903.903 - -
Wähler – turnout / voter participation 44.289.652 71,5 0.8
Ungültige - invalid votes 587.178 1,3 -0.1
Gültige - valid votes 43.702.474 98,7 +0.1
CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats) 18 157 256 42,5 +7.8
SPD (Social Democrats) 11.247.283 25,7 +2.7
FDP (Liberals) 2.082.305 4,8 -9.8
DIE LINKE (Left Party) 3.752.577 8,6 -3.3
GRÜNE (Greens) 3.690.314 8,4 -2.3
PIRATEN (Pirate Party) 958.507 2,2 +0.2
NPD (Neo-Fascists) 560.660 1,3 -0.2
AfD (neo liberal Anti-Euro party) 2.052.372 4,7 +4.7


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