Although the German elections on Sunday were in only two of Germany’s 16 states, they involved many key questions. How would the national coalition between Social Democrats (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) fare in her home state, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (often known as Meck-Pom) or in the nation’s capital of Berlin. How would the Left Party make out, the former Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) which, in both states, had been the junior partner in a coalition with the Social Democrats? Finally, and very crucially, what success could be achieved by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), represented till now only in the southeastern state of Saxony?
Briefly, neither of the two members of the national coalition, the SPD and the CDU, did well. The government has accomplished very little nationally, and what it has accomplished, or promises to achieve in the months ahead, is directed against the non-wealthy section of the population. This was punished by the voters – and even more so, perhaps, by the very many non-voters. So Merkel proved not to be her state’s favorite daughter while in Berlin her Christian Democrats got their worst results since 1945, little more than 20 percent.
The Social Democrats also took losses in both states. Their victory in Mcck-Pom was by a thin edge. It was much larger in Berlin, in no small measure because of the continuing popularity of its mayor, Klaus Wowereit (pronounced Voh-ver-ite), the jolly, well-spoken and almost proudly gay Social Democrat.
Their victories, one weak, one relatively strong, gave the two SPD rulers an interesting choice. In Meck-Pom they can either continue their coalition with their partners of the Left Party or else ditch them in favor of a “grand coalition” with the Christian Democrats, like the one on the national level, in this case, however, with the SPD in the leading position.
In Berlin, similarly, Wowereit and his party can either continue the coalition with the Left Party (the former PDS) or here too end it and join up with the Greens, the only party to make real gains in Berlin. The hard bargaining will begin very soon, with strong pressures from many directions.
And the Left Party? It was only in these two states, coincidentally, that it was a partner in a coalition government. Its few cabinet ministers tried their best to do a good job, which in both states meant primarily trying to ease the bitter results of unemployment and financial difficulties which have prevailed since German unification. Meck-Pom, traditionally one of the poorest, most backward sections of Germany, had been planfully built up during the GDR years to relative prosperity, both for its agriculture, on cooperative (or “collectivized”) basis, and with a varied industrial structure, from food processing and fishing to shipbuilding. Most of this was lost when the GDR went down the drain, and despite gains in the tourist industry along its very attractive lake regions and Baltic Sea coast, it is poverty-stricken once again. A large number of its skilled workers, and much of the youth, have left a patchwork of desolate villages, small towns and modernized but over-aged cities. The Left Party just managed to hold its own as third party with about 17 percent, well under the hopes of its leaders.
In Berlin, however, the results for the Left can only be called catastrophic! All credit for gradually pulling the city out of bankruptcy was given the Social Democrats under Wowereit, while the many cuts and difficulties were blamed on the Left, especially in former strongholds in East Berlin where losses came to an alarming 20 percent (in West Berlin almost 10 percent). Many Left voters just stayed home. The judgement of the voters was no doubt unfair, since the Left had often managed to ease burdens imposed by the SPD, but this had not been reported in the media and the Left had found few ways of getting the facts known. But the media, however one-sided, were not the only factor, or even the main one.
On the national level, the Left (PDS) was aiming at a new united party with the Electoral Alternative for Security and Justice (WASG), led by the charismatic Oskar Lafontaine, once head of the SPD. The prospects of this increase, and the happy first results of this unity during national elections a year ago, especially in West Germany, had led to wide-spread euphoria. Full unification has been planned for next spring. But in Berlin, against the wishes of their national congress, the local WASG branch refused to back the Left Party, accusing it of deserting its constituents by joining the city government, and ran its own candidates. Some saw this as “dog in the manger” tactics; “We can’t win but we can stop you from winning!” The WASG did not get enough votes to overcome the 5 percent hurdle and get into the city legislature, but it took about 3 percent away from the Left, substantially weakening its position in relation to the Greens – who sometimes sound very liberal but have drifted well to the right in recent years. This may well mean that the Left will have to swap places with the Greens for the next five years, losing their government positions and becoming part of the opposition.
Some members of the Left Party (the left of the Left, so to speak) had always opposed participation of their party in the city government, saying it would only benefit the Social Democrats and reduce the militancy of the party. This is exactly what happened; it was hard for the Left to engage actively in protest demonstrations against decisions which its leaders in the government were uneasily supporting, or which the leaders of the SPD in the national government were busy promulgating.
Many leaders of the Left on a national scale had also been hailing the chances of joining state governments or even, perhaps in 2009, the national government, thus becoming a respectable and even respected liberal party, with all the ministerial posts and perks which this brings with it. But the strategy of Left leaders in Berlin – to join in taking responsibility for pulling the city out of bankruptcy even when it hurts, while easing the necessary hardships where possible, has ended in a fiasco. It remains to be seen how many of the leadership and the grass roots membership will recognize this and insist that the party not only proclaim and vote for good policies in the Bundestag, but turn to active militancy of a kind which can win back former voters and win new members and supporters, especially among working people, young people, and disadvantaged immigrant groups like the Turks.
The lack of militancy, of active and visible opposition – is in part responsible for the last and worst aspect of the elections. In Meck-Pom the neo-Nazis (their main party is the National Democrats or NPD) were able to get about 7 percent of the votes, which gives them seats in the state legislature. They had already achieved this in southeastern Saxony, also a part of the old GDR. Although they did not reach the goal of the required 5 percent in Berlin, they were able for the first time to get into several borough councils, where only 3 percent are required and where 15 and 17 year olds voted for the first time, giving them a foothold for future gains.
Their leader in Meck-Pom has been quoted more than once praising Hitler but on the whole the neo-Nazis conducted a clever, well-financed campaign, building on the widespread dissatisfaction in a state with the worst unemployment figures in Germany (between 20 and 30 percent), and suspending the more frightening nazi-type marches, clothing and violence, at least during the election campaign, for a policy of social gatherings, left-sounding slogans against war and the rotten policies of the government, and nationalist anti-foreigner appeals to young people facing joblessness. It can now sound off with its threatening propaganda in the state legislature, with all the media coverage, financial support and perks which that affords.
A crucial question in the years ahead will be whether the Left can offer alternatives to the disappointed and dispossessed in both eastern and western Germany and win over the increasingly apathetic voters. The shadows of a sharp and dangerous move to the extreme right, as once before in history, have certainly darkened as a result of these elections.
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