Hell-bent on ministerial portfolios, SPD leaders join Merkel government for a second time

Nearly three months after the General Election in Germany on September 22 Chancellor Merkel was confirmed by the members of the Bundestag (German parliament) as head of the new federal government for another four year term just a few days before Christmas. The new cabinet is based upon a coalition of Merkel's Christian Democratic Alliance (CDU/CSU) and the social democratic SPD.

Whereas under "normal“ circumstances the formation of a new government in Germany would have been negotiated and organised within a month after the election day, the circumstances in the last weeks have been far from "normal“. First of all, the outcome of the September 22 federal election and the humiliating defeat for the liberal FDP (who for the first time lost all their seats) meant Merkel and big business were left without a majority for the traditional bourgeois camp. In fact the combined number of 320 Bundestag seats for the SPD, the Greens and DIE LINKE (left party) as against the 311 seats of the CDU/CSU could have provided a majority to oust the Merkel government in the opening session of the new Bundestag in late October. Such a coalition could have taken immediate decisions on some of the progressive measures designed to benefit the working class that the parties' election manifestos had in common.

Yet instead of even considering for a moment a Scandinavian type minority government the SPD leaders made up their minds to go for a "Grand Coalition“ under Merkel´s leadership just a few days after the election. This was a major breach of their election promises and caused a lot of unrest amongst their rank and file. Party members have not forgotten the last "Grand Coalition“ under Merkel from 2005 to 2009 which resulted in a historic setback for the party after it was reduced to a mere 23 per cent share of the votes cast nationally in the 2009 election, the worst result since the 1890s!

In order to appease the rank and file and prevent an open revolt, SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel had to promise that the members would have the final say on the coalition deal with the CDU/CSU. They knew that the final agreement between the parties had to contain some social democratic phraseology such as the promise to introduce an 8.50 Euro national minimum wage as demanded by the trade unions. 8.50 Euro, by the way, is still far below the poverty line but would mean a step forward for millions of working poor who eke out a miserable existence suffering at the mercy of casualisation of labour.

By and large however, the final coalition agreement presented in late November is far from being a social democratic manifesto. Instead it contains a lot of purely cosmetic points and vague promises. The specification on the 8.50 Euro minimum wage is full of smallprint and loopholes, not to mention the fact that it will not be binding until as late as 2017. This is no accident - it is designed to leave sufficient room for manipulation and lobbying by different groups of capitalists demanding legal exceptions for certain sectors of the economy. Many of the promised measures that cost money are "subject to the availability of sufficient funds“. There will be no change in foreign policy, meaning that the workers, pensioners and youth in Southern Europe will continue to suffer under the dictates and bullying of Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, an old CDU warhorse.

The national SPD leaders, hell-bent on ministerial portfolios, knew that they had to do their utmost to get a majority of their party to vote in favour of the coalition deal in the postal ballot. They were prepared to try everything to convince the doubtful and vacillating membership of the alleged "blessings“ of the deal. So they started a professional propaganda campaign including daily, biased newsletters mailed to the membership as well as expensive full page advertisements in the press. With the help of the bourgeois mainstream media and the top union leaders they conveyed the message that "Europe is expecting the SPD to join the government in order to introduce more social justice“. Another "argument“ was that old Willy Brandt, the legendary former party leader and ex-chancellor born 100 years ago would not have become chancellor in 1969 if he had not entered the last "Grand Coalition“ with the CDU/CSU in 1966! The members were also blackmailed with the horror scenario that a majority of "No“ votes would immediately provoke the collective resignation of the leaders and trigger an early election, thus pushing the party below the 20% threshold nationally.

There were many assemblies held up and down the country to urge the members to cast a "Yes“ vote, some of them were even live-streamed and broadcast. Those rallies were, by and large, pre-fabricated and manipulated by the party bureaucrats. This one-sidedness was deplored in an open letter by Udo Fröhlich, a party veteran and former mayor of the northern town of Bad Segeberg, who described the proceedings at a regional assembly in his area as follows:

  • 10 minutes welcome speech by the county party chairmain urging members to vote "Yes“
  • 30 minutes introduction by the regional chairman urging members to vote "Yes“
  • 5 minutes reading out of questions submitted by the members in writing beforehand
  • 65 minutes reply to the questions by prominent party leaders urging members to vote "Yes“

Udo Fröhlich correctly explained that "this members' vote is not the result of a democratic procedure“, and he has pointed to the fact that there was never a free discussion with equal rights and speaking time for supporters and opponents of the coalition agreement.

Another difficulty lay in the fact that in the debates on the coalition deal many of the alleged "left“ leaders quickly moved to the right and urged members to vote "Yes“. Those "converts“ were often given extra speaking time and consciously used to trap doubting und confused members. In the end there were only two MPs in the Bundestag and another handful of MPs in the 16 regional state parliaments who advocated a "No“ vote. However, the youth organisation (Jusos) stood up against the pressure from above and after a debate with party leader Sigmar Gabriel at their Nuremberg national conference in early December some 70 per cent of the delegates voted against the Grand Coalition deal.

Given all those circumstances, and the fact that the party has lost hundreds of thousands of members in the last ten years who were critical of the leaders, it is no wonder that the party leadership got their desired result, with 76% voting "Yes“ and a high turnout. What is more remarkable, however, is the fact that against all odds and without any organised "No“ campaign, some 80,000 members were still not swayed, intimidated or blackmailed by the professional campaign and voted "No“. That is significantly more than the 21,000 members who, in 2003, opposed the counter-reforms of the "Agenda 2010" by Gerhard Schröder and it is even more than the current 63,000 members of the party DIE LINKE.

Most of the 80,000 members who are not fooled by the official propaganda and want a fundamental change of policy are, however, isolated from each other and not organised as an internal party opposition. As long as they remain a dispersed, anonymous and frustrated mass without a programme or organisation they will achieve little. As a combined power together with the members of DIE LINKE and critical, non-party trade unionists they could get a movement for real change started in this country. It's time for a return to the old Marxist traditions that existed in the German Social Democracy prior to World War I, especially the struggles of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht a century ago against the rampant opportunism and careerism of the then party leadership.

Hans-Gerd Öfinger, Der Funke, Germany