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Germany: Die Linke, Hesse and the `super election’ year

Oskar Lafontaine

By Duroyan Fertl

January 29, 2009 -- Germany kicked off a “super election year” on January 18 when voters in the western German state of Hesse returned to the polls for the second time in twelve months. The new election had become necessary after months of negotiations to form a coalition government collapsed late last year, when four parliamentary members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) rebelled against a plan to form government with the assistance of the far-left party, Die Linke.

The SPD had benefited in last year’s poll from voter rejection of the racist scapegoating and law-and-order politics of the ruling right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Prime Minister Roland Koch. Despite its vote, however, the SPD still lacked the numbers to form government, even with its preferred allies, the Green Party, and the SPD’s leader in Hesse, Andrea Ypsilanti, turned to Die Linke for support.

In the lead-up to the election, however, Ypsilanti had bowed to pressure from SPD hardliners and promised not to deal with the Die Linke. Many in the dominant right wing of the SPD have an almost irrational dislike of the left-wing party, partly fuelled by the fact that it formed in out of a fusion of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS – the successor to the former East Germany or German Democratic Republic’s ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party) with the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Social Justice and Jobs) – a group made up of radical trade unionists and breakaways from the SPD, included former SPD chairperson Oskar Lafontaine.

Nevertheless, when neither the SPD nor the CDU were able to form government with their preferred alliance partners – the Greens for the SPD and the radical free-marketeers of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) for the CDU – Ypsilanti backflipped on her promise in order to win government, securing an agreement with the Greens and Die Linke, but losing support in her own party.

All attempts to form government having fallen through, the Hesse parliament was left with little choice but to dissolve itself, which it did on November 19, 2008, forcing new elections, and the left-leaning Ypsilanti was forced to step aside in disgrace, to be replaced as candidate with Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, a relatively unknown SPD backbencher.

The January election resulted in a further disaster for the SPD, which has been battling poor polling for months, and is desperate to restore its fortunes by winning state government. Its support dropped thirteen points to only 23 per cent – the worst result in the party’s history, a fact made bearable only by the fact that the CDU’s showing was equally unimpressive. They managed only a 0.4 per cent increase on last year’s result of 36.8 per cent, making this its worst result in Hesse as well.

While voters punished both the SPD and CDU, the main beneficiaries in the election were the minor parties – the Greens’ vote almost doubled to 14 per cent, while support for the FDP rose from 10 to 16 per cent. Many more people simply refused to vote, however, and the election saw voter turnout in Hesse drop to an all-time low of  61 per cent.

While the SPD lost considerable support, it is perhaps surprising that Die Linke – which aims to win over disenfranchised SPD supporters – achieved only moderate gains, increasing its support by 0.3 per cent to 5.4 per cent. While failing to capitalise immediately from the SPD’s disarray, Die Linke has nevertheless managed to hold on to the six parliamentary seats it won last year – still a major breakthrough for the young party.

In the end, then, after twelve months of caretaker government, incumbent CDU Prime Minister Koch has been returned to power, in alliance with a strengthened FDP, a political constellation that many see as the likely outcome in the federal election due for later this year.

SPD in crisis

In the wake of the Hesse results, the SPD remains in total disarray, having lost considerable support due to its anti-social fee-market policies, for which it lost government in 2005. Support has dropped to a dismal 22 per cent nationwide, well behind the CDU on 37 per cent, and the SPD is desperate for political victories to revive it in this important federal election year.

Having replaced unpopular national leader Kurt Beck – who flip-flopped on the question of working with Die Linke – with the machiavellian Franz Münterfering, the SPD was hoping for a revival of its fortunes. However, as the unwilling junior partners in a federal “Grand Coalition” government alongside the right-wing CDU, the SPD is continuing to implement neoliberal policies, further alienating its traditional support base, which is already suffering the effects of the economic crisis.

When the German economy fell into recession late last year, the CDU/SPD government’s response was to announce a €480 billion “bail-out” of the country’s major banks. At the very same time, unemployment in Germany is expected to rise by nearly 1 million over the next few months, and the country is facing a poverty rate that is estimated to stand as high as 18 per cent, and it is rapidly rising.

There are already suggestions that the country’s second largest private bank, Commerzbank, is using its first €10 billion ($20 billion) handout simply to finance a takeover bid of Dresdner Bank, while the major German banks are already calling for a second “emergency bailout” to divest them of a claimed €300 in “toxic debts”.

At the same time, workers’ industrial action is on the rise in Germany. Last November, more than 500,000 metalworkers held short strikes across southern Germany, demanding an 8 per cent wage increase, and Lufthansa workers at Frankfurt airport are currently threatening strike action, also over wages.

`Super election’ year

Germans will vote this year in sixteen polls, including local, European and presidential elections, as well as state elections in Saarland, Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, before the federal elections on September 27. In the former East Germany, Die Linke maintains popular support of more than 25 per cent, where it has built on its former PDS support base. In many of these eastern states, such as Thuringia and Saxony, Die Linke is expected to outpoll the SPD, and support for Die Linke is expected to grow as the economic crisis deepens.

In the west, however, the SPD also has reason to be worried. While the PDS had failed to reach into the west, Die Linke has fared better, winning seats in every west German state election it has contested except Bavaria, which has a more complicated electoral system

In the industrial centre of Saarland, which is home to co-leader Oskar Lafontaine. Die Linke has polled as high as 29 per cent – double SPD support in that state. There is a real chance that Die Linke could poll high enough force the SPD into an alliance government – Die Linke’s first in the western part of the country.

The `red threat’

Since its official formation in 2007, Die Linke has grown to the point that it is now the third-biggest party in Germany, polling up to 15 per cent nationally. This popularity results from Die Linke’s criticism of neoliberal economic policies, and in its calls for greater social spending – on education, health, housing and employment – and higher taxes for the rich.

Oskar Lafontaine, who has been openly critical of the role of finance capital and globalisation, recently called for income tax on all “shameful” incomes – those above €600,000 ($750,000) – to be increased to 80 per cent. While many of Lafontaine’s statements are simply anti-neoliberal, he as gone as far as to identify “globalisation” with capitalism, and to call for the inclusion of sections from the Communist Manifesto in Die Linke’s constitution, stoking right-wing fears of a “communist revival”.

This rhetoric – genuine or not – is also striking a positive a chord in Germany, where economic and social problems have hit hard in recent years and enormous corruption scandals have rocked the country. As the global economic crisis has hit, Germans have found a renewed interest in Karl Marx, whose major work Capital has returned to the bestsellers list in Germany, and publishers have run out of stock. Linksjugend – Die Linke’s leftwing youth organisation – recently organised a national series of schools on the Marxist classic.

The German state has been less than positive about the rise of Die Linke. A 2007 report from the Verfassungsschutz – a German secret service agency – indicated that the government had placed Die Linke under surveillance, leading to a public outcry, and a number of legal cases. Die Linke is also opposed to militarism and calls for an end to German involvement in the war in Afghanistan, putting it at odds with every other party in the German Bundestag, and with Germany’s imperialist allies abroad.

A year of challenges

Despite its rapid growth, however, Die Linke still faces challenges in uniting former PDS members and social democrats, revolutionary socialists and left-wing radicals around a common, militant, platform.

In Berlin – where Die Linke is in coalition government with the SPD – Die Linke has been involved in implementing a number of the same neoliberal policies it claims to oppose. Klaus Lederer, Die Linke’s leader in Berlin, spoke at a recent rally in support of Israel’s war in Gaza, defying the party’s official opposition to the onslaught.

Unionists have also pointed to Die Linke’s contradictory positions in a number of recent industrial disputes, and the party has been accused of pursuing an electoralist strategy at the detriment of building the social and union movements.

These problems are often ascribed to the influence of the more socially conservative ex-members of the PDS within the party, but while Die Linke may be largely dominated by the former PDS, it has attracted thousands of more-radical members, including far-left groups, militant trade unionists and socialists, and has become a far more diverse and effective organisation.

Despite these challenges, and the ongoing media campaign against Die Linke as “neo-communist”, including attempts to link leading members with the Stasi – the former East Germany’s secret police – Die Linke has shaken up the political landscape in Germany, and has forced the four main parties to move to the left on a number of issues.

If it can overcome its own internal problems and the attacks of the mainstream media, Die Linke looks set to score major electoral wins this year, and force German politics leftwards.

[Duroyan Fertl is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]

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