German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced her withdrawal from the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) leadership election race, as well as her candidacy for the next German parliamentary election. This marks a political earthquake and the end of an era in German politics, as Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005 and leader of the CDU since 2001.
This announcement was precipitated by CDU’s second humiliating defeat in two weeks in the recent elections in the federal states of Bavaria and Hesse, where the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) faced big losses, barely holding onto power.
Establishment parties in decline
In Sunday’s elections in Hesse, the CDU won 27 percent of the vote, down 11 points compared to 2013: its worst result since 1966. Merkel’s ally, Volker Bouffier barely gained a mandate to form the next regional government. The CDU’s junior coalition partner in the federal government’s ‘Grand Coalition’ – the Social Democrats (SPD) – fared even worse, dropping 11 points to 19.8 percent: the party's worst result since 1946 in Hesse, a region that long ago was considered a “red stronghold”.
The liberal Green party, which has been a regional coalition partner of the CDU in Hesse for the last five years, came out as the biggest winner, rising more than eight points to 19.8 percent of the vote, securing a continuation of the regional government under Bouffier, but with a majority of just one seat. The right-nationalist, Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in fourth with 13.1 percent and for the first time managed to elect MPs to the Hesse parliament. Die Linke (Left Party) and the ultra-liberal FDP also gained slightly, taking 6.3 and 7.5 percent of the vote respectively.
The election results in Hesse mirror the situation in Bavaria, where the CSU, which has enjoyed an absolute majority in the region for all but five of the years since 1962, was reduced to 37 percent: its lowest result since 1957. The SPD suffered a humiliating defeat and scored a mere 9.7 percent share of the votes cast.
This has plunged the federal government into crisis. What these results reveal is a growing resentment amongst the population against the traditional parties, who are seen as ‘the establishment’ and as ever-more-divorced from the lives of ordinary people.
On paper, Germany is doing great. The economy, by far the strongest in Europe, is steadily growing at around 2 percent per year. Unemployment is at a historical low of 4.9 percent officially, although real unemployment and underemployment are higher. But most of this growth has not translated into higher living standards for the majority. In fact, part of Germany’s economic success is based on attacks on living standards set by the Gerhard Schroeder-led, SPD-Green government between 1998 and 2005. Today, millions of German workers are forced to live on casual jobs in an ever-more-precarious situation.
The SPD is very proud of introducing the minimum wage in 2016, which now stands at €8.84 per hour. This is just under €1,500 per month before taxes and social insurance contributions, if you are lucky to be employed full time. But that barely covers the basics of life. According to a report by The Economic and Social Science Institute (WSI) of the trade union-supported Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, a third of German households could sustain themselves for a maximum of a few weeks or possibly a few months if they lost their source of income.
An important part of the working class is essentially living from paycheck to paycheck, while the rich get richer every day. Inequality in Germany today is at its worst level since 1913 and the poorest 40 percent of the population have less purchasing power today than 20 years ago. At the same time, the government jealously guards its austerity policies, refusing to increase state spending, even though the state has been continuously running a surplus. Mass resentment against the government has thus been accumulating for a long time.
But this resentment could not find any outlet through the SPD or trade union leaders, who are all – in one way or another – tainted by the policies of the coalition government. In this context, Germany’s participation in the Greek and Eurozone bailout packages – as well as Angela Merkel’s decision to accept up to 1 million refugees in 2015 – opened the path for right-nationalist forces such as the AfD, and factions within Merkel’s own party, to attack her from the right. Demagogically blaming the government for ‘caring about people from other nations before Germans’, they are feeding off the anger of desperate, disgruntled layers of middle-and-working-class people, who do not see an alternative in any other party. Of course, Merkel is not herself any kind of anti-racist democrat, but her views reflect the majority opinion of German big business, which favoured those measures for their own class interests.
The growing pressure from a rising AfD opened rifts and conflicts between the CDU and the CSU, and within these parties themselves. Over the summer, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer – who is also the leader of the CSU – threatened to pull his party from the federal government (thereby provoking early elections) if Merkel did not agree to introduce border controls. In the end, a compromise was reached. Feeling the fading fortunes of the government, Seehofer was clearly trying to distance himself from it ahead of the regional elections. But the Bavarian elections results show that Seehofer’s gamble did not work and, in fact, the opportunistic behaviour of both sides further discredited them In the eyes of most people. This is playing in favour of the AfD, which is always trying to appear as the defenders of the common man against the ruling political machine.
The image of power hungry, self-seeking cynics fits well with what ordinary Germans think of the establishment politicians. Nearly 75 percent of voters who left the CDU, and more than 50 percent of those who left the SPD, said they did so in order to “send the party a message.” The decline of the main establishment parties is highly significant. Between them the SPD and the CDU used to have between 60 and 80 percent of the votes in elections since German unification, and even 90 percent in the 1970s. In the 2017 elections, they barely mustered 50 percent. Today they stand at 40 percent in the polls.
Both government parties are deeply destabilised as a result of this. The results in Bavaria and Hesse – home to Germany’s financial heart, Frankfurt – are adding fuel to the fire. Even Hesse’s premier, Volker Bouffier (who used to be a close Merkel ally), sniped at the result: “The message to Berlin is absolutely clear: govern properly.” A sign of what lies ahead was revealed in the election of the conservative ‘floor leader’ in the Bundestag a few weeks ago. Here, Merkel’s longtime ally Volker Kauder was unexpectedly defeated in a coup orchestrated by a number of CDU and CSU MPs, in clear defiance of Merkel.
This is a reflection of the centrifugal forces that are developing within the party and which are bound to be reinforced at the CDU’s party congress in early December. Immediately after Merkel’s announcement that she would not stand for re-election, party leaders were falling over each other to declare their candidacy for the CDU chairman position. One of the contenders is the ambitious Friedrich Merz, who was pushed aside by Merkel in the 2002 leadership contest and has been waiting for his revenge ever since then. He gave up his Bundestag seat in frustration in 2009 and is now a major lobbyist for finance capital and big business, sitting in the supervisory boards of Blackrock and a dozen more influential companies. Merz is favoured by many capitalists and ultra-liberal right-wingers within the party although his victory is far from certain. The final result of the internal election in the CDU could see a fierce opponent of Merkel run the party – a situation which could lead to a crisis ridden and probably short-lived government.
SPD at a dead end
The CDU’s coalition partner, the SPD, is in no better shape. While claiming to be a social-democratic, working-class party, it is increasingly seen as nothing more than CDU-light. Having participated in all governments since 1998 – with the exception of 2009-2013, when Merkel leaned on the arch-liberal FDP for a term – it is rightly regarded by an increasing number of workers as complicit in the austerity policies and in countless attacks on their livelihoods carried out in this period.
In the 2017 Bundestag elections the party received 20.5 percent of the vote: the lowest since 1932. When the election defeat was announced, SPD leader Schulz proclaimed the SPD would not enter a grand coalition government and go into the opposition, which raised hopes in the ranks of a left-wing turn. These hopes were dashed by the sudden u-turn imposed by the leadership. An internal opposition calling for the party to leave the grand coalition was eventually defeated. The party tops have forced through the third coalition government agreement under Merkel since 2005, thus plunging the party into an even deeper crisis. What this made apparent, before the eyes of millions of people, is the SPD bureaucracy’s hunger for ministerial posts, and its inability to withstand the enormous pressure by German big business to support Merkel and stave off an imminent political crisis.
Clearly, the crisis could only be postponed for so long. Since the formation of the new coalition government in April, support for the SPD has plunged even further, and it is polling no more than 14 percent nationally. This was confirmed by the humiliating defeats in the regional elections, which will inevitably increase the tensions within the party, potentially to the point of withdrawing from government. But the SPD leadership has so far been unwilling to break with the CDU/CSU, and even if they eventually managed to do so, the party is set for a terminal decline unless there is a decisive turn to the left. The whole political equilibrium in Germany is at risk: a nightmare scenario for Angela Merkel and German big business. Nevertheless, these ladies and gentlemen are assisted by the endless greed of SPD MPs, many of whom would lose their privileged positions if elections were called today.
After the Hesse elections, SPD leader Andrea Nahles tried to appear defiant by calling for the government to change the way it worked, but at this stage there is no evidence that she is willing to back up her words with action. The image of sly and spineless SPD careerists refusing to leave government for their own benefit is a further factor in pushing the party down in the polls.
Thus, the majority see no possible change coming from the established parties. In protest, droves of people have been voting for the Greens, who appear to have been almost reborn. Last year, the party was fighting to stay above the 5 percent parliamentary threshold before finally landing at 8.9 percent at the elections. Today, they are projected to score 20 percent of the vote, making them the second party in parliament. On the one hand, this is a reflection of the hatred that people have accumulated towards the SPD and the CDU; and on the other, it is a reflection of liberal and christian voters disgruntled with the anti-immigrant policies of the CDU/CSU. In fact, while the international media mainly focuses on the CDU/CSU losing votes to the AfD, it is losing almost the same amount of votes to the Greens. These are liberals and middle class people who see no benefits in closing down borders and leaving the EU. This is bound to add to the centrifugal forces that are threatening to tear the CDU and CSU apart from inside.
No working class alternative
Under the impact of sharpening class contradictions, the traditional political system is falling apart. But this process is only finding a partial and distorted reflection in the growth of AfD and the Greens. Immigration is not the real problem faced by the German workers. In fact, since Merkel accepted 1 million refugees in 2015, unemployment has fallen by 2 percent officially and crime stands at its lowest level since 1992. The real criminals and parasites in German society are amongst the capitalist class, living lavishly off the back of the daily toil of the German working class. But the AfD conveniently forgets to criticise this class, because it represents one of its wings. By pointing a finger at the immigrants, it is attempting to divide the working class and weaken it in the face of the bourgeoisie.
Further EU integration, which the Greens argue for, is not going to solve anything either. The EU is an instrument of the European capitalist class, and in particular the German one. For German big business, open borders are very important because they allow Germany to flood the EU market with cheap goods and at the same time import cheap labour. The EU serves solely the interests of the capitalists.
The real enemy of the German working class is the capitalist class. By forcing through severe anti-union and austerity measures they have secured for themselves a huge pool of highly qualified, cheap labour in the German working class. On this basis they are raking in record profits every year, while the majority of Germans are seeing their living standards steadily decline.
Had there been a left-wing party with a clear, radical plan of exposing the German capitalist class and calling for the expropriation of its wealth to be used for the improvement of society, it would immediately have begun to gain an echo within society. But no such party exists. Die Linke, the most left-wing party in the Bundestag, is formally a socialist party, but in practice it is just a left version of Social Democracy. The party is putting forward reformist demands, such as higher taxes for the rich, but it is by and large avoiding the question of nationalisation and expropriation of banks, monopolies, private housing companies and big landowners. The little opposition it puts up is tame and countered by the fact that in the East, where they have been traditionally stronger and have ministers in three governments, they are carrying out capitalist policies and following the dictates of the Grand Coalition.
Thus, the party in the East is seen as part of the establishment and has been hemorrhaging support to AfD. While there is plenty of radical talk in the party resolutions and programmes of Die Linke, hardly anything of this is visible in its public campaigns, or where the party is in power. Although nationalisation of the banks has been official party policy since the crisis 10 years ago, this is not put forward in any election or public campaigns. At best, the party leans on a German version of Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan “For the many, not the few”. The party appears lifeless and has little appeal to people who are looking for a genuine and radical way out of the crisis. In fact, while the SPD has been hemorrhaging support from workers and youth who are tired of the party’s right-wing drift, Die Linke has barely picked up in the opinion polls. In the Bavarian elections, Die Linke only scored 3.2 percent. In Hesse, where the party has a more left-wing and more militant profile, it received 6.3 percent.
In recent months, the dissatisfaction has led one of the factions at the top of the Die Linke, led by Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, to set up a broad anti-establishment movement called Aufstehen (Stand up). Portraying this movement as an open break with establishment politics, they have called for a reversal of privatisations an and end to imperialist foreign policy and a drastic improvement in welfare and living conditions. The list of prominent Aufstehen supporters also includes some of the opponents of the Grand Coalition within the SPD and a number of veteran trade unionists. Towards the end of a summer, which had seen a significant rise in strikes and protests, the movement gained up to 150,000 online supporters within a few weeks. This reveals the enormous potential for a radical, working-class organisation.
But since then, Aufstehen has remained stagnant. Its leaders have not taken any other bold measures, probably fearing losing control over the movement. Now, some local demos have been called for this coming weekend. The setting up of local, rank-and-file structures is also beginning, but slowly. At the same time, Wagenknecht, who is enjoying some personal popularity in opinion polls and represents the most prominent face of the movement, has been flirting with nationalism, opposing open borders as well as not supporting the call for a massive anti-racist demonstration which drew 250,000 people in Berlin on 13 October. She keeps calling on the left to be “realistic” and to talk about so called real issues concerning the working class. But all of this is having a demoralising effect on some of the advanced layers of the working class who are correctly opposed to any policy that breaks working-class unity.
Wagenknecht thinks she can cleverly gain the support of people who are drifting towards AfD. But, as we have seen in the past couple of years with the SPD and CDU, adopting a more anti-immigrant tone is only going to strengthen the AfD. The rise of the AfD is mainly a result of capitalist policies, which Die Linke regional leaders themselves have been complicit in implementing while in power.
Whether Aufstehen will attract disenchanted former SPD supporters and many other politically “homeless” workers and youth in sizeable numbers, and this develop into a real anti-establishment movement, is yet to be seen, but what it does reveal is the explosive mood that is brewing underneath the surface. Under the impact of sharpening class contradictions, we are seeing the beginning of the breaking up of the political equilibrium, which was built after the Second World War and further consolidated after German unification. All that used to be solid and stable is melting as Germany enters a period of instability, crisis and class struggle.
Nothing but crisis ahead
The dominant sections of the ruling class forced the SPD and CDU/CSU to form a government. In so doing, they were trying to avert imminent disaster and an uncontrolled crisis. They want stability to remain within the EU – their primary market for export – at any cost. But nothing has been solved. On the contrary, being in government is ripping both parties apart. There is the potential for Merkel to resign as chancellor and for the coalition to break up long before the next general elections, officially due in autumn 2021. For instance, if the CDU elects an anti-Merkel leader, or if the SPD opposition forces the party to withdraw from government. This is a period of economic, social and political turbulence that could produce unforeseen and ‘surprising’ results at any time.
But the bourgeoisie is still putting enormous pressure on the parties to avoid this. Furthermore, the ever-greedy MPs can always be trusted to be wary of forcing new elections, as many of them would not be guaranteed to be re-elected. If the government was to last until the next elections in 2021, this would mean an extensive collapse of both parties, leaving the big bourgeoisie with little direct, political influence apart from through the Greens. In any case, political instability would be the main characteristic of this and any future government, and this will also have a severe impact on the EU.
This process will be further exacerbated by external political and economic shocks such as Brexit, the Italian banking crisis, the rising trade wars or a slump in the world economy. All of these will exacerbate class contradictions and pit the German working class against big business. What we are witnessing today is merely the prelude to the great class struggles that will shake Germany and the rest of world in the next period.