Is Germany faced with a right wing election victory?

Hans-Gerd Öfinger, from the editorial board of the German Marxist magazine Der Funke looks to the prospects for the upcoming elections in September. With Schröder's uninspiring Blairite policies, voter absention could well open the door to the Christian Democrats who were so sounded defeated four years ago.

Will Germany follow the path of France, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Italy and Austria and return to a coalition government of the two main bourgeois parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Liberals (FDP)?

Less than two months before the general election on September 22, opinion polls published from week to week give the two parties that provided the basis for Kohl's coalition government over 16 years a majority over the combined votes of the Social Democrats (SPD), Socialists (PDS) and Greens. Although many people - more than ever - have not finally decided which party to vote for, defeat for the SPD is now a serious possibility.

Last summer, when Schröder's friend and political co-thinker Tony Blair was re-elected in Britain, it appeared to be likely that Schröder's coalition with the Greens would be returned in September, 2002. But the economic situation and general mood have changed dramatically since then.

Unemployment and uncertainty about the future

Kohl lost power in 1998 and suffered a defeat of historic landslide dimensions because of high unemployment (4.5 million) at the time and because of his attacks against the welfare state and workers' rights. Schröder had openly set himself the modest target of reducing the official unemployment figure to 3.5 million. In 2000 and 2001 - when the coalition had stabilised itself after an initial turbulent period in 1999 - economic growth seemed to provide the basis for achieving this target and unemployment was well below the 4 million mark. They even made much ado about the need to recruit IT specialists from overseas to fill the labour shortages on the basis of "green cards" two years ago. However, against the background of a recession even some IT specialists and workers have lost their jobs, and unemployment his risen to four million again, even in the recent summer months.

Struggle in the East

While the recession and the crisis of sectors such as the building industry and the "New Economy" have left behind traces everywhere, things are much worse still in the East. Here, in the former DDR, the destruction of the planned economy after the capitalist restoration in 1990 has led to an enormous destruction of the productive forces and social welfare system. This has created disaster areas in many regions with unemployment of well over 20 percent and a massive migration (almost 2 million) of younger, skilled and highly educated workers to the West. The ones left behind in the East are considered also-rans by the Capitalists.

The gap between East and West is widening. In 1990 Kohl promised to create "flourishing landscapes" on the basis of capitalism by 1994. However, as early as in 1994, and more so in 1998, Kohl's coalition lost its majority in the East and was by far eclipsed by the combined vote of the SPD and PDS. This swing laid the basis for Schröder's victory in 1998, as he promised to give the reconstruction of the East top priority and due attention. Now many Easterners feel left alone with their problems.

Political fallout in the East

In Saxony-Anhalt in the East, the election for a new state parliament (Landtag) in April 2002, provided a dress rehearsal and warning for the Bundestag election in September. Here, where the SPD had formed a government based on the support of the PDS in the last 8 years, high unemployment overshadowed the election campaign. On the basis of massive abstentions, the SPD's share of the votes cast was reduced from 36% to 20%, and a coalition of CDU and FDP took over office. In the campaign, the SPD promised that with a bit of patience, an economic boom would come and solve the problems there. Yet workers feel every day that things are not going to be better, and that even for those who will not immediately lose their jobs, general working conditions are quickly deteriorating.

The strike movement begins

Against all odds, the workers in the past few months have flexed their muscles and have gone out on strike. Within the last few months a series of strikes lead by 3 major unions: IG Metall (engineering), ver.di (services, public sector, transport) and IG BAU (building industry) took place in the period of the wage negotiation rounds. These strikes showed that the workers were beginning to move in a more aggressive way. After years of moderate wage rises and a fall in real wages and living standards, wage-earners have said "enough is enough!"

Recent history and experience show (not just in Germany, but on an international scale), that wage restraint does not create new jobs and solve the problem of unemployment. Although the profits of big companies grew by 85% between 1993 and 2000, real wages were reduced by 6.5% and the unemployment problem was not solved, but, in many areas (like the East), exacerbated.

The strikes have occurred despite the tops of the unions and the government calling for restraint and generally seeking to hose-down the flare-ups. The first major strike was initiated by IG Metall, the auto manufacturing, metalworking and engineering union. This has been followed by strikes in the areas of building, printing, packaging manufacturing, the National Post & Telecom, bank employees in Frankfurt financial districts and even newspaper editors in solidarity with the technical staff have gone out on strike. In the past few days a strike amongst the public transport bus drivers in Hessen has occurred.

In the past period, many unions have lost large numbers of members due to the right-wing policies of the union bureaucrats. However, in recent times, this has not stopped many workers joining unions in the midst of the strikes. Importantly, non-organised workers also struck and many demonstrators were young people who had joined in for the first time. In the future on the basis of a world slump, the bureaucracy is going to come under severe pressure to do more for the rank and file.

Mobilisation has also begun among students. In North Rhine Westphalia, the industrial heartland of Germany, mass protests of students against tuition fees proposed by the Head of State Government, Wolfgang Clement (right-wing social democrat), took place. Clement subsequently had to withdraw his plans.

"More sacrifices are needed!"

It was not a routine wage round this year as in recent years. With the backdrop of the recession, employers are getting bolder in demanding cuts. Banks, for instance, are planning a reduction of their employees' salaries by one third. On top of that, employees are encouraged to increase their wages on the basis of their individual efforts, for example through commissions from contracts sold to customers. This, however, will prove a dangerous trap to enter into such arrangements in the midst of an economic slump where few contracts will be sold.

This situation is quite new for bank workers who had always thought their job to be safe and guaranteeing good wages and conditions. As this illusion has been smashed, thousands of bank workers marched through Frankfurt, stopping to protest outside Frankfurt's skyscrapers, the supposed symbols of wealth and prosperity.

What's the good news then?

Unfortunately, not much. The recent crash on the stock market has shown that stock investments, often seen as an "easy way" to accumulate wealth, has faded away into illusion, and that individual opportunities to prosperity under capitalism are melting away. Every day news about business failures and massive destruction of jobs are flooding the media reports.

Can Stoiber win?

So why is a victory of the reactionary Christian Democrats headed by Bavarian prime minister, Stoiber, a likely perspective now? Why can't movements of workers and students prevent the clock from being turned back after September 22?

The truth of the matter is that Stoiber (who is a friend of Berlusconi) is not obtaining any real enthusiastic support. However, a massive abstention on the part of disappointed and disillusioned SPD supporters could bring about the decisive change. At the same time, Stoiber does everything to polish up his image: he avoids clear promises and even portrays himself as a political leader who will take up the problems of ordinary working people and avoid cuts in the welfare state. Some press commentators have even stated that Stoiber is trying to present himself as more social democratic than Schröder himself.

Unlike his reactionary political mentor, Strauss, who stood for chancellor in 1980, proclaimed himself as the "German Thatcher", and was subsequently defeated, Stoiber tries to avoid any statement or gesture that could polarise and mobilise his opponents on the left and in the working class. Another Bavarian Christian Democratic leader, Glos, even went so far as to state that his party was the "real workers' party" in the country.

The SPD leadership bites the hand.

The massive movement of workers in 1996-97 found its political expression in an electoral swing in 1998, which swept the SPD into power. In recent months, however, the SPD leadership did nothing to lean on the mobilised working class for the coming election. On the contrary, in spring 2002, SPD leaders and election campaign strategists did whatever they could to exert pressure upon union leaders to stop industrial action. Officers in the party HQ and campaign organisers even went so far as to put the blame for a possible election defeat on the union leaders. There is a layer of neo-liberal yuppie elements in the party apparatus and committee structures that is very remote from the real life of the working class.

Of course unemployment, recession, and stock exchange crashes are not Schröder's fault but are caused by the workings of the capitalist system. Yet it was Schröder (in his attempt to introduce Blairism into the SPD) who over the last four years has propagated the illusion that he could manage capitalism better and more "progressively" and "skilfully" than Kohl, Stoiber and Co. So instead of putting forward measures like the reduction of the working week and a minimum wage, the SPD leaders are caught unawares by the present crisis, incapable of explaining what is happening and incapable of outlining and alternative.

Elected by the workers, but…

Schröder has done his utmost to appease the capitalists with numerous concessions, especially with his tax reform. Despite demands from the rank and file and the unions, Schröder refused to re-introduce the property tax (which had been abolished under Kohl), while at the same time corporation tax for the monopolies was reduced enormously. Schröder and his Finance Minister, Eichel, had the illusion that tax cuts for the capitalists and rich would nurture a long lasting boom and bear fruits in terms of state revenue that would be enough to finance the welfare state and return to sound budgets.

Eichel (an ex-left winger who must have heard of Marx in the 1970s) even went so far as to say in early 2002 that "nobody on the planet could have predicted this recession." Like their counterparts in other countries, Schröder and Eichel are now discovering that the Capitalists willingly accept their services and appreciate Schröder's intentions - and still favour a Stoiber government!

Public revenue crisis

Recent news points to the fact that instead of paying some corporation tax to the state, many big monopolies and banks are now in a position to legally get large tax refunds! This crisis of public revenues is to the detriment especially of local councils who will be faced with enormous difficulties whatever the outcome of the election will be.

The real dimension of the disaster will not be exposed to the general public until after the election. For the moment, it will be hidden to fester away within the walls of the party bureaucracies (on both sides) as local government bureaucrats struggle to convince the leadership of tailoring their fiscal policies to help fix the mess.

From one crisis to the next

Drunken by the apparent success story of ever rising share prices in 1999 und 2000, the political establishment encouraged people to buy Telekom and other shares, propagating the illusion in a popular shareholder capitalism. Yet when the drastic fall in the quotations of Deutsche Telekom stirred up unrest on the part of over 3 million individual shareholders, the government, which still holds 43% of Deutsche Telekom shares, felt under pressure to act and encouraged the resignation of Ron Sommer as managing director of Deutsche Telekom.

However, the dumping of Sommer (with a lavish compensation worth millions of Euros, of course), who until recently was held up as a hero by Schröder and Company, will not fundamentally help to overcome the crisis of overcapacities in the telecommunications sector which is clearly a world-wide problem.

Given the serious crisis of the economy and the enormous losses of assets, it is an expression of enormous recklessness on the part of social-democratic leaders to have ushered in the process of privatisation of the pensions system. This is an unfortunate paradox: in the USA millions of older workers about to retire are afraid of losing everything and facing poverty as a consequence of the recent crash and bankruptcies. In Germany, the first news about an imminent crisis of life insurances appears in the media - yet leading Social Democrats pride themselves with introducing the "blessings" of private pension schemes!

Any differences?

While it is clear that Stoiber and Co will also try to play the trump of racism in a very skilful way, right-wing social democrats such as Schröder's interior minister, Schily, again and again voice racist phraseology themselves, thus playing into the hands of the right-wing law and order campaigners in Stoiber's camp.

It is not surprising that many people say: "The 'Reds' and 'Greens' have promised to do better than Kohl, but things are not getting better, so it does not really matter who is in power. They are all the same anyway…"

Yet is true that there are still differences between a Schröder administration and a Stoiber-led government. The current coalition has re-introduced important gains such as sick pay and protection against dismissal, etc, that had been abolished by the previous Kohl government. There has been some minor improvement in the rights of shop stewards (works councils) and some very modest progress in the field of civil and democratic rights that would never have occurred under the Christian Democrats. So there are still reasons to say "Stop Stoiber!"

However, Schröder's policy has alienated many workers and rank and file party activists. Under this government, Germany for the first time since the second world war got actively involved in aggressive warfare again (Yugoslavia and Afghanistan). This was a shock for many long standing party members, some of whom left the party in disgust. The so-called "War on Terror" was used as an excuse to introduce "law and order" legislation, i.e. to abolish democratic rights.

Indeed, the gap between rich and poor in society has widened. The process of privatisation to the detriment of workers, ushered in under Kohl, was continued at high speed (Post Office, Telekom, Railways, public utilities, etc) and numerous cuts in the welfare state were carried out - on the backs of the unemployed and generally the weaker sections in society.

Corruption scandals

A further factor which undermines the enthusiasm of the SPD rank and file, enthusiasm which will be more than necessary for mobilisation purposes in the election campaign, is to be found in recent scandals and exposures about corruption and dubious deals of leading Social Democratic politicians. In the industrial heartland of North Rhine Westphalia (with a higher population than the whole of East Germany), leading local council politicians are being sued for corruption by the public prosecutors.

In Cologne, the local SPD has been shaken by corruption cases in the context of refuse collection privatisation with far-reaching consequences which involved leading local party representatives. So it is not excluded that mass abstention in North Rhine Westphalia alone will suffice to usher in a (relative) victory for Stoiber.

The prospects for other parties

The Greens who were launched some 25 years ago, a somewhat left-wing alternative, have turned out to be a liberal party - especially in important class issues in an even more right-wing manner than the bulk of many Social Democratic MPs. Their support for warfare has alienated many of their former supporters who had had illusion in their "pacifism".

The PDS (with traditions in the ex-East German Communist Party) is hoping to gain votes from disillusioned SPD and Green supporters. It is still regarded as a left alternative by many. Yet given the fact that in the East they hold important positions in the state apparatus (ministers in two Eastern states and many mayors, etc) they are also faced with conflicts and discontent on the part of their rank and file and could find themselves in a situation comparable to that of the Communist parties in France, Spain, and Portugal.

When 3 MPs of the PDS held up a banner in the Bundestag session, which was addressed by US president Bush on May 23 ("Stop your wars, Mr Bush and Mr Schröder"), PDS leaders apologised to President Bush for this "unfortunate incident" and tried to distance themselves from those three party comrades!

A severe crisis looms

Whatever the outcome of the election will be, Germany is facing a new period of crisis, turmoil and sharp changes. A Stoiber government would undoubtedly introduce harsh anti-working class measures (as proposed by leading employers' associations and right wing professors and journalists) and provoke resistance before long. If, despite his stupid attacks on his own support base, Schröder was to continue in office, a critical mood in the party rank and file and the unions would also develop. Schröder's "Third Way" Blairism is exposing itself as a complete dead end.

The economic and social earthquakes will further discredit pro-capitalist ideologies and provide a new fertile soil for anti-capitalist criticism and Marxist ideas. Already, even before the slump, there is a ferment in the Unions and youth. At some stage in the coming years this will be reflected in the SPD (and also in the PDS in the East), but it will be easier to influence them if they are in government after September.

Yet more has to be done by the SPD to regain the flagging support from the people that voted them there in the first place 4 years ago. Only on the basis of policies that benefit the workers (the majority), can there be a solution to the crisis that Capitalism and the "free market" created! Therefore we call for:

  • Massive wage increases for workers and a guaranteed minimum wage for all!
  • Militant trade union action to defend jobs and services.
  • No more "Third Way" policies for the SPD - policies that benefit SPD supporters, not attack them.
  • No to privatisation of our public services - renationalise the privatised industries with no compensation for the fat-cat capitalists.
  • No to the bosses destroying jobs - nationalise firms threatening redundancies and closures.
  • For a socialist plan of production based on taking the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management.