If any of your ancestors came to the USA from northern or eastern Europe there's a good chance they left from the German city of Bremen or its portside adjunct Bremerhaven. If you were ever a uniformed member of the US occupation army in Germany, the chances are even better that you arrived (like me) via Bremerhaven (and Bremen). Today most shipyards are a thing of the past; it is struggling to climb out of its heavy debt as a container port. And it is both the smallest German state and the poorest of the former West German area. Its heavily working class population (today pronounced 'mid-dle class') has made it a stronghold of the Social Democratic Party, without interruption, from the very beginning.
The recent election was true to that tradition. Nobody was surprised that it got 38.1 % of the vote and will keep the same mayor. Nor were many eyebrows raised at the big gains of the Greens, now riding on a huge popularity wave since the Japanese atomic disaster alarmed Germans more than anyone else, it would seem, and since shutting down reactors has always been a main Green talking point. And the Greens, though aging a bit around the edges, and no longer the radicals they once were, still appeal with their informality to young people. Since Bremen gave the right to vote this year to 16 and 17-year-old teenagers (the first and only such attempt in state elections) this also helped this party to gain a fat increase of over 6 points for a grand total of 23 %.
Balancing such joy was the bitter disappointments for just those two parties which form the federal government. Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union got its worst result in years, with 21.5 %, which put them, almost incredibly, behind the Greens in third place.
What about their national partners, the big-biz Free Democratic Party (also known here, strangely enough, as the 'Liberals'!). For weeks they got top media coverage when they threw out their leader of ten years Westerwelle (who remains as unimpressive Foreign Minister) in favor of the charismatic young Philip Rösler, of Vietnamese birth but German upbringing, who in one clever speech after another claimed his party would finally move out of the doldrums. And what happened? It stayed in the doldrums, getting only 3 % and thus not a single seat in the city-state legislature. All the happy PR effort seems to have been in vain, while party leaders, forcing a smile, say 'Just wait for the next election!'
Thus the ruling parties on the national level both lost out in Bremen, reflecting growing dissatisfaction. Exports may be doing just great, the banks, prospering as of old, are again handing out 6 and 7 digit bonuses to their happy bosses. Even joblessness is officially easing. But low-paid, part-time, precarious jobs have multiplied and the social network is sagging sadly, with Merkel now proposing to raise retirement age to 69 even before it has been fully raised to 67. And Bremen has far more than its share of the underemployed and jobless.
What is largely forgotten, it would seem, is that both Social Democrats and the Greens, when in opposition on the national level, make progressive sounding noises, but once they get into office they almost always water down their juicy promises. They helped raise the retirement age, lower taxes on the wealthy, weaken the once so exemplary medical system, make things tougher for the jobless and sent troops to Afghanistan. Both echo 'Bomb Libya' slogans even though Westerwelle and Merkel refrained from joining in. And the Greens, while stressing ecology and atomic dangers, almost always forget people's social needs; indeed, they have become a party whose members are most often high-salaried professionals. But in Bremen, I should add, their shared reign has been fairly mild thus far, despite the weight of a huge debt.
But what about the Left? Four years ago Bremen was the first West German state where it cleared that 5 % hurdle (with over 8 %) and got into the legislature. That was the first of a happy series. But this past year has seen nothing but downturns. Recent attempts to break through in two more western states failed, it barely stayed on in Hamburg. And in Bremen?
Well, it made it! It got close to 6 % and 5 or 6 seats in the legislature. But this was a loss of almost 3 percent, a lot for such a small party. What has been going wrong?
It has partly been the media attacks or, as in Bremen, almost total silence about its election campaign. But the party itself has supplied far too much ammunition, arguing, backbiting, jockeying and moving far too close to splitting, an old ailment of leftwing groups, parties or movements. One side in the dispute, stronger in western areas, is more militant and demands certain conditions before even considering coalitions with Greens or Social Democrats (both of whom abhor the very idea of such a coalition if at all avoidable).It wants sharper attacks again privatization of utilities and a greater stress on future anti-capitalist goals. And it wants the party program to oppose any use of German soldiers outside German borders.
The other side, far stronger in East Germany where it often commands 20-25 % of the vote, hopes for a share in coalition governments, such as currently exist in the city-state of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. To achieve this it is ready to tone down demands.
These questions, undoubtedly important, involve disputes which have been going on for over a century. But today Germany needs a unified fight to improve conditions for all those people, many of them children, who face poverty here and now. The Merkel government is trying to use the European Union to raise the pension age, cut vacation length and force wages down in all member countries, including Germany. Resistance is all too often misdirected: neo-fascist parties, all specializing in Muslimophobia, are growing alarmingly all over Europe: Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, even France, Italy and England! The Left should be in the lead in fighting back, in concert with young people in Spain and England, working people ion Greece and Portugal (and Madison) and in the Arab world. Things are moving faster and faster, but require across-the-borders coordination and cooperation.
Some members and groups of the Left have been fighting as hard as they can, defying the media. But there has been constant quarreling about the contents of the future program and the correct strategy in situations which have not yet arrived. The Left is too rarely seen out in the streets with loud and clear messages on today's issues. In Bremen it scraped through. Will it find its balance before it fades even further? It is urgently needed!
Note: Thanks to a complicated election system the numerical results will probably change to a small degree.