Germany: Red-red-green government in Thuringia

By Victor Grossman

December 7, 2014 -- MRZine, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Political parties in Germany are represented by colours: the Christian-Democrats (CDU), due to clerical ties, are black, the Greens of course are green, the Social Democrats (SPD) are traditionally red. When the redder Die Linke (Left) party came along critics said the SPD should switch to "pink". But it didn't, so the new government in the eastern state of Thuringia is a "red-red-green coalition" -- the very first in Germany with the Die Linke on top!  A true sensation! The coalition squeezed  to victory -- by one single wavering vote.

Were the SPD and Greens really willing to be junior partners with Die Linke, scorned as pariahs? They were, but in an almost exactly split legislature every vote was needed to beat possible maneuvers by the CDU, now very bitter at getting pushed out after ruling Thuringia since 1990.  

In the first (anonymous) vote count, one deputy broke ranks; if this happened again it might throw the whole coalition plan into question. But whoever it was fell into line in a second vote and the Die Linke leader Bodo Ramelow (pictured above), a West German union leader who had moved east, received 46 yes votes (out of a total of 90) and thus became premier. On taking the oath of office, although a practicing Lutheran, he chose to omit the "so help me God" conclusion.  

A new cabinet was sworn in, with four Die Linke ministers, three from the SPD, and two from the Greens (despite the latter's meagre election results). Three of the Die Linke and one each from the other parties were women.

This first-time coalition led to anger, rage, almost hysteria among some politicians, journalists and assorted anti-communists in other states. The head of Angela Merkel's sister party in Bavaria called it "a day of shame for unified Germany... Twenty-five years after the fall of the wall our motto must once again be: together prevent a leftist republic!"

A notoriously right-wing professor, Hubertus Knabe, said: "This is not a good day for Germany and especially not for victims of the SED [Socialist Unity Party, the German Democratic  Republic's ruling party before 1990) dictatorship [the eastern part of the Linke is the reformed descendant of the SED party].  It is a great disappointment for many one-time victims that not a single deputy of the SPD or the Greens had the courage to prevent this coalition."

But most SPD and Green leaders on a national level stressed that this coalition was strictly local, maybe OK in one state but in no way involving any repeat on the national level after the 2017 elections, with Die Linke positions on foreign policy, state security and such matters being impossible. Only a few in the two parties dared oppose total taboos in advance, but it is not only they who read polls showing that a Green-SPD alliance could hardly gain the needed majority without the Die Linke.

There are hopes, less openly stated, that this new experiment in Thuringia will push Die Linke towards modifying or even abandoning its troublesome, "radical" positions. Ramelow, in his first speech as premier, avoided talk of clear differences and instead stressed most vigorously a total rejection of that bad dictatorial GDR past and his wish to get along with everybody. His announced goals -- offering one pre-school year in kindergarten free of charge, hiring more teachers, cutting the number of counties and helping the jobless ruffled few feathers, especially since the SPD and Greens had exacted a restrictive coalition pledge that the budget be balanced, with no deficits.

Die Linke membership in Thuringia, happy at having their man at the top for the first time, had approved the new coalition in advance per referendum by 94 per cent. Many in the party rejoiced at this key breakthrough. Die Linke co-chair Bernd Riexinger said: "If Thuringia is now governed well the tidings will spread to all of Germany."  Matthias Höhn, another top leader, like Ramelow from the "reformer wing", wrote: "How important this is can be seen in the nervousness and confusion in the Christian parties simply at the prospect of a red-red-green policy change now becoming reality in one German state."


But other members and leaders were dismayed by the agreed-on description of the GDR as an "Unrechtsstaat", an "unjust state", a term now proclaimed and taught almost universally and demanded by the SPD and Greens as a condition for joining up. In the GDR, it was recalled, elections were not free, the judiciary was politically controlled and government rule was dictatorial. Few really challenged these judgements, but their emphasis and their intent were questioned.  

Katja Kipping, party co-president, said that the new coalition "would make Thuringia a great deal more socially conscious, more democratic and more ecologically green" but added that the term "Unrechtsstaat" would be difficult to understand for many who had lived in the GDR "because they see in this description a degradation of their efforts in Germany, after fascism, to build up a different, a socialist country... That is what makes this discussion so difficult."

A former co-president, Gesine Lötzsch, "the term 'Unrechtsstaat' is not only a key word in criticizing the GDR, it also has implications for the future" since it implies an alleged lack of any alternative to policies of the Federal Republic. "Thus there are no alternatives to shipping weapons to crisis regions, privatizing roads and highways, salvaging banks, injustice in pension plans, and certainly no alternative to capitalism...The next generation must not even think about alternatives to capitalism. The GDR, defined in toto as an 'Unrechtsstaat', is shoved into close similarity with fascism."

In a similar vein, Wolfgang Gehrcke, deputy chair of the Die Linke caucus in the Bundestag, said this term was "historically false, shaped by political motivation and scientifically invalid. The term 'Unrechtsstaat' is based on the 'totalitarianism ideology' equating Hitler fascism with the GDR... Branding the GDR as an 'Unrechtsstaat' denigrates the lifelong efforts of so many citizens of that state ... thus implying that all laws enacted in the GDR were unjust."

And in a widely seen talk show Oskar Lafontaine, former co-chair (and once chair of the SPD), was even more vigorous: "This discussion about the Unrechtsstaat is aimed at distracting from monstrous injustices now taking place."  He listed the killings by US drones, the countless refugees drowned in the Mediterranean and wars of intervention.

Yet the terminology was officially adopted, and cooperation was to be rejected with any organisations disagreeing with this position, and no responsibility given to any such individuals!

Some Greens -- in Germany they stand in some matters to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel -- are gloating over their influence in this coalition, which may soon resemble an Eiertanz -- a daring dance in between raw eggs. One single deputy can always bring it down if he objects to a Ramelow position.

In a way the red-red-green victory recalled those of US President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, which marked an amazing defeat of racists. The Thuringia coalition is a blow to primitive anti-communism. Will it also lead to other similarities -- and perhaps disappointments? No one can tell. But in the often heated debate on state injustice, some thoughts turned from long past sins to alarming current news of police homicides in Ferguson and Staten Island -- or bombings in the Ukraine.  Injustice is such a complicated matter!

[Victor Grossman, US journalist and author, has been a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall, socialists to head gov’t in east German state

By Duroyan Fertl

November 11, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- Nearly 25 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialist party Die Linke (“The Left”) looks set to form government in the eastern German state of Thuringia for the first time.

After two months of uncertainty following September 14 state elections, the way was cleared for Die Linke to head a coalition government in December, alongside the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, on November 4 when nearly 70% of SPD members in Thuringia voted to enter the coalition.

Die Linke has governed at a regional level before, as a junior partner to the SPD in Berlin and Brandenburg. But this marks the first time they will lead a government.

It also marks the first time since German reunification that a socialist party will take charge of a government — a breakthrough for a party that has been treated as a pariah by the political and media establishment.

Die Linke was formed in 2007 by a merger of the Party for Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former East German ruling party) with dissident Social Democrats, left-wing radicals and trade unionists from western Germany.

As well as opposing the neoliberal economic consensus in Germany and the European Union, Die Linke’s support for greater social spending and opposition to NATO puts it at loggerheads with the other major parties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had topped the September 14 poll with 33%. The SPD vote, however, collapsed to only 12% — less than half the support won by Die Linke.

It was only when SPD leaders rejected the chance to continue as junior coalition partner to the CDU that a so-called “red-red-green” coalition became a realistic possibility.

The SPD has repeatedly refused to enter coalitions at the national level with Die Linke, despite the SPD, Greens and Die Linke winning enough seats to form a left-wing federal coalition government last year. Instead, the SPD formed a “grand coalition” with the CDU, helping to enforce the vicious austerity drive across the Eurozone.

Die Linke’s leader in Thuringia, former trade unionist Bodo Ramelow, is from western Germany rather than from the east. This fact may have helped the SPD accept the idea of a coalition. Ramelow is widely considered to be a pragmatist rather than a “romantic socialist”.

Another reason is that 25 years of CDU rule in Thuringia have been characterised by low wages and high unemployment. The state has also gained further notoriety as a centre of operations for the neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground. After its vote slumped in September, many in the SPD fear that further association with the CDU will result in its support falling further.

Unlike the SPD, the Greens placed a more odious condition on joining a coalition with Die Linke. The Greens insisted that Die Linke describe, in writing, the former East German regime as a “rogue state” [or unjust state] where the rule of law did not apply — a view widely rejected among Die Linke supporters in the east.

After complaining publicly about the demand, Ramelow eventually acquiesced – with qualifications — clearing the way for a coalition government.

Developments in Thuringia have led to a predictable outbreak of anti-communist scaremongering across Germany. Even before the election took place, Merkel responded to strong polling for Die Linke by warning voters not to “let Karl Marx back into the state premier’s office”.

German President Joachim Gauck broke with tradition to criticise Die Linke on national television. Despite the presidency being a largely ceremonial and officially neutral position, Gauck openly suggested that Die Linke was not to be trusted, and might engage in the type of repression associated with the former Stalinist East German authorities.

On November 9, about 4000 protesters from the CDU, SPD, smaller right-wing and neo-Nazi parties took to the streets in the state capital Erfurt to call for Ramelow to resign. During a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in German parliament, Die Linke was described as “dragon spawn” and the “wretched remains” of the East German dictatorship.

In recent months, Die Linke MPs in Thuringia have had their car tyres slashed and wheels loosened, and have received threatening letters and phone calls.

The SPD’s entry into coalition with Die Linke is seen by many as a test run for a possible “red-red-green” coalition at a federal level. It marks part of the SPD’s attempts to extricate itself from a series of damaging “grand coalitions” with the right-wing Christian Democrats and reaffirm its place in the centre-left of German politics.

A Die Linke-led government in Thuringia also causes another headache for Merkel. It further cuts her government’s power in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament) and strengthens the opposition.

Ramelow’s installation as premier still depends on a vote in the state parliament, where a Die Linke-SPD-Green coalition would have a single seat majority.

But if the Thuringia coalition government is a success, it could bring the SPD a step closer to accepting a coalition with Die Linke at the national level — and herald the end of the Merkel’s government.