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.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sat, 05/16/2009 - 15:36


05/14/2009 06:17 PM


'We Want to Overthrow Capitalism'

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Left Party Chairman Oskar Lafontaine speaks about his party's chances in the upcoming elections, its alleged drift to the left and why Angela Merkel needs to work through certain aspects of her communist past.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Lafontaine, is Germany embroiled in a class struggle?

Oskar Lafontaine: The US billionaire Warren Buffett answered this question much better than the Left Party ever could. "It's class warfare; my class is winning," he said. To which I would add: The class that has been losing for years is starting to stir again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Greed, avarice, selfishness and irresponsibility of the ruling class," the rich who "want to make even more money out of a lot of money" -- your party's draft platform for the upcoming German national elections sounds like Marx and Engels. Do you really believe that you can appeal to voters with such strong slogans?

Lafontaine: When the German president (Horst Köhler) talks about "monsters" and (Social Democratic Party leader) Franz Müntefering speaks of "locusts" and "losers," then we have actually made it into the center of society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The first draft was much more cautious. In fact, it was so moderate that your comrades from the party's left wing protested and accused it of sounding like a watered-down version of the Social Democrats (SPD). Do the more moderate elements in your party no longer have any say?

Lafontaine: We tightened up the draft. In the process, certain points became clearer. And it's totally normal for different factions of a party to write different documents. That's something I've been familiar with now for over 40 years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have even introduced the term "democratic socialism" into the draft.

Lafontaine: Nobody in our party's executive committee is naive enough to think that we could change our society so much over the next four years that it could rightfully be called democratic socialist. But if the SPD is talking about democratic socialism, one will surely forgive the Left Party for using the term (laughs).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your Left Party colleague Sahra Wagenknecht does not want to fix capitalism; she wants to overthrow it. What do you think?

Lafontaine: The entire Left Party sees it that way. We want to overthrow capitalism.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would that be possible?

Lafontaine: We will change the economic order. That begins with regulating international financial markets. When we first put this subject on the agenda, our critics were still in the process of rolling out the red carpet for financial capitalism. Financial capitalism has failed. We need to democratize the economy. The workforce needs to have a far greater say in their companies than has been the case so far.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What should we expect to happen once you've overthrown capitalism?

Lafontaine: A society in which every person enjoys the highest possible degree of freedom.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you seriously believe that our society does not provide enough freedom?

Lafontaine: We have a society in which people are excluded from work and live on Hartz IV (ed's: Germany reduced monthly welfare payments for the long-term unemployed introduced as part of structural reforms known as Agenda 2010 implemented in 2003 by the then-government, a coalition of the SPD and Green Party) and in which the educational system reinforces social inequalities. Such a society is not really a free society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your candidate lists for the parliamentary elections show a clear trend toward the far left within your party. Carl Wechselberg, your expert on budget issues in the Berlin city government, has accused you of leading the Left Party astray (ed's note: Citing differences of opinion with his party, Wechselberg left the Left Party after this interview was conducted). What is your response?

Lafontaine: The decisions of the Left Party are supported by large majorities. There are always dissenting opinions. In regard to the candidate lists, our reformist forces talk about a leftward shift, while the left wing thinks it sees a shift to the right.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But in North Rhine-Westphalia, a series of candidates from the far left of the party hold prominent places on the list.

Lafontaine: Yes, but on the other hand, there are state party organizations in which the left wing of the party sees all the candidates coming from the right wing of the party.


Lafontaine: I'm convinced that the mixture of the candidates on our list reflects the range of positions within the party.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But your draft platform for the national elections doesn't exactly sound balanced. You want to do a number of things, including abolishing Hartz IV, reintroducing 65 as the retirement age (in 2007, the German government increased the legal age to collect a full pension to 67), pulling the German army out of Afghanistan, introducing a €10 ($13.6) minimum wage and launching an annual public investment program worth €100 billion. With such goals, the Left Party will never be able to enter into a coalition with any other party.

Lafontaine: We have always been very clear about our prerequisites for entering into a coalition. The SPD and the Greens have both significantly changed their positions on Hartz IV. Likewise, on the issues of minimum wage and pensions, those parties have made a certain degree of movement. And when it comes to the issue of withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan, the SPD and the Greens will probably only come to their senses once US President Barack Obama realizes that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won and withdraws his military.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your positions are all extremely firm demands; but politics requires compromises.

Lafontaine: We are also prepared to make compromises, but every party has certain positions that cannot be ceded. The Greens, for example, would never vote for nuclear power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You recently proposed raising the top income tax rate to 80 percent. Do you expect to be taken seriously?

Lafontaine: That is not in our draft manifesto. But, for a long time, I have been calling for that to happen with incomes that are 20 times or more the average salary. Nobody is so productive that he deserves to make more than 20 times the salary of a skilled worker.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the past, your poll results have been better. The anti-capitalist Left Party is stagnating in its approval ratings or losing ground precisely in the middle of the deepest economic crisis since 1929. How do you explain that?

Lafontaine: It's true that the Left Party needs to become stronger, but past experience shows that governments tend to make slight gains in times of crisis. Granted, support for the FDP (ed's note: the business-friendly Free Democratic Party) is still growing, but I would already venture to predict that a Christian Democrats/FDP coalition would not have a majority after the parliamentary elections.


Lafontaine: Although the (conservative) Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is stagnating in comparison to the last national election and the SPD is losing support, there's a chance we will see a continuation of the grand coalition (ed's note: the current CDU-SPD coalition government). That is exactly what the SPD's leadership sees as their salvation, so they are only pretending to run an election campaign.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You once said that former SPD leader Kurt Beck could become chancellor immediately if he were to push through the minimum wage, restore the previous pension system, abolish Hartz IV and pull the German military out of Afghanistan. Does this offer apply to the SPD's current candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier?

Lafontaine: Of course. Our positions are not connected to individuals but to content. If Mr. Steinmeier were to endorse such positions, he could become chancellor tomorrow.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to continue to measure the Left Party by its attitude toward East Germany's past.

Lafontaine: An interesting psychological case. People tend to accuse other people of their own mistakes. Ms. Merkel needs to deal with her own past in East Germany and that of her own party. She was an FDJ functionary for agitation and propaganda (ed's note: The FDJ was an official youth movement in communist East Germany). As such she belonged to the fighting reserve of the party (ed's note: the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED)).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's at issue here is how one sees East Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Wall. One has the impression that this issue has not been definitively resolved within your party.

Lafontaine: The PDS has, as one of the Left Party's predecessor parties, dealt with the question of its relationship to East Germany at many party conferences and in the papers (ed's note: For an explanation of the PDS and the parties that united to form the Left Party, please click here ). Only the CDU has not done so. It swallowed the assets of two of the SED's satellite parties, and otherwise covers up its past with a cloak of silence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was East Germany a dictatorship in which the rule of law did not apply?

Lafontaine: The GDR was not a state based on the rule of law -- that is a much more precise answer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In a few days, the German president will be elected. Will the SPD's candidate, Gesine Schwan, be able to rely on your vote in a possible second or third round of voting, should the incumbent, Horst Köhler, not achieve an absolute majority in the first round?

Lafontaine: We have yet to make a decision on this issue. We will discuss how to proceed after the first round of voting, should Horst Köhler not already have been confirmed in office.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does that mean that your own candidate, Peter Sodann, would be a good fit for the Left Party?

Lafontaine: A lot of media outlets have written about him in a very disparaging way. We continue to believe that there must be a candidate for the highest political office who castigates Hartz IV and wars that violate international law.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You would like to become governor of Saarland. In a survey conducted in that federal state, the Left Party lost 5 percentage points and is now only supported by 18 percent of the population. Will party leader Lafontaine no longer emerge as the likely election victor?

Lafontaine: And other polls say other things. I'm convinced that we will get 20-plus percent of the vote in Saarland.

Interview conducted by Björn Hengst and Claus Christian Malzahn.