Germany: Big gains for Die Linke as Social Democrats’ support collapses

By Duroyan Fertl

October 5, 2009 – Germany’s ``centre-right’’ Chancellor Angela Merkel was returned to power in federal elections held on September 27, but with a record low voter turnout and an increased vote for the far-left party, Die Linke (The Left).

The election was a clear success for Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her preferred coalition partner – the free-market fundamentalist Free Democratic Party (FDP) – increased its support by 4.8 per cent to an all-time high of 14.6 per cent, enough to form a CDU-FDP government. The FDP will now replace the CDU’s main rival – the ``centre-left’’ Social Democratic Party (SPD) – as coalition partner in the government of Europe’s largest economy.

At the same time, the SPD’s support collapsed by more than 6 million votes, dropping a massive11.2 per cent to only 23 per cent – its worst result since World War II. As one leading SPD member pointed out on election night, “We have been bombed back into the Weimar Republic”. SPD leader Walter Steinmeier described the result as “a bitter day” for German social democracy.

However, while the result has been widely characterised as a shift to the right, that view is not really borne out by the results. The total vote for the centre-right parties rose by only 3.4 per cent, while the vote for the neo-Nazi New Democratic Party (NPD) dropped to just over 1 per cent, while the total left vote dropped by only 5.4 per cent.

Voter turnout slumps

The election campaign was one of the dullest ever run, with the two major parties – CDU and SPD – being overly polite to each other, neither wanting to alienate voters or lose their chance of remaining in government.

In a televised “debate”, Steinmeier and Merkel acted like old chums, and the unofficial slogan of the entire campaign became “Yes we gaehn” (“Yes we yawn”). As Dietmar Bartsch, Die Linke’s general secretary, explained: "It was a very boring affair. None of them were any good. It was exactly what we had expected."

After 11 years in government, presiding over increasing cuts to social welfare and rising poverty and unemployment, the SPD lost the confidence of many of its traditional supporters, and was barely able to distinguish its own neoliberal policies from those of its main rival during the election campaign.

The SPD’s support was also impacted by its refusal to consider going into coalition with the far-left Die Linke, making a vote for an SPD government essentially a vote for the status quo, and another “grand coalition” with the CDU.

Some disaffected SPD supporters shifted their votes to Die Linke or to the Greens, but millions simply stayed home, enjoying a last warm weekend before winter. In fact, the voter turnout was the worst in 60 years, down to 70.8 per cent from 77.7 per cent four years ago, and most of those voters were once SPD voters.

While the CDU managed to retain government, it also suffered a drop in its vote, down by 1.4 per cent to 33.8 per cent, also a record low. And while the CDU-FDP coalition won a slender majority in the Bundestag – the German parliament’s lower house – various left-wing parties still have a majority in the upper house (the Bundesrat),which is made up of representatives from state governments.

The new CDU-FDP government is expected to introduce widespread cuts to social spending, especially under the influence of the FDP. Although the more conservative CDU will temper the FDP’s neoliberal urges, the new government has promised to introduce tax cuts of up to 20 per cent, reduce public spending, reverse the phase out of nuclear reactors, increase the pension age to 67 and continue Germany’s military involvement in the occupation Afghanistan.

Die Linke

The real success stories of the elections were the minor parties. The big winner was the right-wing FDP, whose increased vote makes them the third-biggest party in parliament. The Greens also entered double figures for the first time in a federal election, with 10.7 per cent, and increasing its presence from 51 to 68 seats.

The far-left Die Linke – the newest party in Germany’s political landscape – won 11.9 per cent of the vote, an increase of 3.2 per cent on 2005. It is the first time in German history that a party to the left of the SPD has scored more than 10 per cent in an election. Die Linke’s representation in the Bundestag has increased from 54 to 76 MPs, 40 of whom are women.

Die Linke was formed in 2007 when the Party of Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former ruling Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic – ``East Germany’’) merged with the Electoral Alternative for Social Justice and Jobs (WASG) – a group of disillusioned SPD members, trade unionists and socialists formed in 2005 to oppose the right-wing policies of the SPD-Green coalition federal government of the time.

Since then. Die Linke has continued to increase in popularity despite a media scare campaign about the threat of “communism”. Die Linke’s election platform of improved social justice and public welfare, the introduction of a minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, relaxing harsh unemployment laws and cutting greenhouse gases emissions by 90% by 2050 have resonated with an electorate suffering the effects of the economic crisis.

Unemployment is already more than 8 per cent and will continue to rise as Germany’s export-dependent economy tries to ride out the crisis. Well over 10 per cent of Germany’s population already lives below the poverty line.

While more than 80 per cent of the population is opposed to the war in Afghanistan, Die Linke is the only party calling for the removal of German troops.

In two years, Die Linke has now won seats in 10 of Germany’s 12 state parliaments. In the western state of Saarland, an SPD heartland and home to Die Linke spokesperson Oskar Lafontaine, the Die Linke won more than 21.3 percent of the vote in state elections in September, placing it just behind the SPD. In Bremen, Die Linke scored more than 14 per cent, and even in the conservative state of Bavaria, Die Linke’s support more than doubled, reaching 6.5 per cent.

In the states of the former German Democratic Republic, Die Linke fared even better, becoming the second-biggest party in the region after the CDU, and well ahead of the SPD. Die Linke won more than 25 per cent support in a majority of eastern electorates, and leading members Gregor Gysi and Petra Pau won their seats in Berlin with nearly 50 per cent of the vote.

In state elections held on the same day as the federal poll, Die Linke also entered parliament for the first time in Schleswig-Holstein – winning 6 per cent of the vote and five seats in the legislature – while in the eastern state of Brandenburg, it received 27.2 per cent, just behind the SPD on 33 per cent.

Can the SPD move left?

The SPD’s disastrous results, and the increased support for Die Linke, mean the SPD leadership is under significant pressure to move the party to the left and work with Die Linke, or risk losing more support. Adding to that pressure, a recent survey found that more than 50 per cent of Germans think that socialism is a good idea, but had been badly applied.

Die Linke co-leaders Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi have both called upon the SPD to “re-social-democratise” in order to build a strong left-wing alliance against the new government. According to Die Linke’s deputy leader – and ex-SPD member – Klaus Ernst, if the SPD does not change “the last one out can turn off the light”.

This may not be as easy as time seems, however, as many SPD members still hold a visceral hatred for Lafontaine. As former chairperson of the SPD and former federal finance minister, Lafontaine is considered to be a “traitor” to the SPD. Lafontaine resigned from the SPD in 2005 in protest against anti-social policies of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He became a central leader of Die Linke, and an outspoken critic of both SPD policy and “finance capitalism” more generally.

So, while Die Linke has eclipsed the SPD in a number of state elections, and has indicated its willingness to enter coalitions with the SPD and the Greens to fight the looming attacks on public spending, in government as well as on the streets, it is unclear if the SPD will cooperate.

Only days after the federal election, the SPD in the eastern state of Thuringia refused to form a coalition with Die Linke – despite indicating it would do so during the election campaign. Although already in coalition with Die Linke in Berlin and Brandenburg, in Thuringia the SPD have chosen instead to work with the right-wing CDU.

There can be no guarantee, then, that the SPD will move quickly to the left or develop a coherent relationship with Die Linke, a situation which means that the social resistance to the new government’s spending cuts and reforms will be weakened.

Despite its significant gains, Die Linke is faced with a new series of challenges. As the clearest opposition voice and defender of social programs and public welfare, Die Linke must now find a way to relate to the millions of disillusioned SPD voters, and to organise the strongest possible response to the economic crisis and the pro-business policies of a right-wing government.

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