Much of the media complained that the German election campaign was dull; after all, the two main opponents had worked together in a coalition for four years and generally agreed or compromised on most issues. Dull or not, however, it had three important results.
Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will remain in office as chancellor, but no longer as an unhappy senior partner with the Social Democrats, once her party’s main rivals. In future, her party will share Cabinet seats in a new coalition with its favored partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), who stand even further to the right on most issues. Although they are the party of businessmen and conservative professionals, their leader, Guido Westerwelle, has been making all kinds of promises to the voters in his smiley manner which somehow gets across to voters. Since he will probably be the next Foreign Minister, the whole world may get the chance to enjoy his slimy smile. It was especially broad after the elections; the many votes for his party will permit Merkel to stay in office. Her own party, though still ahead of the others, took a bad beating at the polls.
The CDU’s losses were serious, but nowhere near those of the Social Democrats, which lost over 11 percentage points, its worst results since World War Two. The party is now down to about 23 percent; after eleven years in government it must now get used to the harder, colder seats on the opposition side. The disaster resulted from its policies of assailing working people, the jobless, and small business people while cutting taxes for the super-rich and the corporations. True enough, the three other main parties had also joined in or supported these policies, but it was the customary voters for the Social Democrats, working people and the jobless, who were most disappointed at this direction. They did one of three things: they fell for Guido Westerwelle’s beaming grin and promises, partly because his party has not had any government responsibility for decades; or they stayed home or went to the park to enjoy the wonderful post-summer weather — without voting; or they voted for the Left.
This helps explain the low turnout and a third main phenomenon. The Left, now gaining strength in West Germany, jumped from a national total of 8.7 percent in 2005 to about 12 percent this time, increasing the number of deputies sent to the Bundestag from 54 to nearly 80. There was clearly great distrust of both the CDU and the Social Democrats. While the two major parties, which shared in government for the past four years, licked their wounds, all three smaller parties made big gains: the Free Democrats, who now move into the government with Angela Merkel; the Greens, who finally — just barely — gained double digit numbers; and the Left.
Until now the Left was almost alone — except for a few mavericks from other parties — in opposing the military adventure in Afghanistan; majorities in all other parties voted to send in the troops though a solid majority of the German public were opposed to it. Only the Left fought the brutal cuts and pressures aimed at the jobless that increased unemployment or forced people into miserable low-paid dead-end jobs. The Left was alone in opposing the raising of the pension age from 65 to 67 at a time when almost no one over 50 can find a job. None of the other three parties supported the Left when it opposed cutting taxes on the wealthy and increasing a value added tax which hit all customers, but worst of all the poor.
The new government soon to be formed will mark a further move to the right, almost certainly pushing the drastic measures against labor which the Free Democrats have been preaching. All Germans except the wealthiest should be prepared for many a crucial struggle to protect living standards. The only vigorous resistance in the Bundestag in recent years has been by the Left. Now, with strengthened positions, it can fight better than before, but it is not great and mighty, and has been avoided in the past like "Schmuddelkinder" or ragamuffins, whom good children should keep clear of. Will this change? Will others reject prejudices and join it in its efforts?
The other two parties which will be in opposition, the Greens and the decimated Social Democrats, began to sound more leftist during the election campaign and tried to undermine the Left by stealing its demands. Will this continue — or will they agree to cooperate? Gregor Gysi, the prominent Left leader, warned that Social Democrats must basically alter their positions on key issues like creating work or pay for the jobless and the rejection of military adventures abroad. Only then can there be real cooperation, perhaps even in future elections. This would require big changes within the Social Democratic party. Perhaps their disastrous showing will make them draw the same conclusion.
Three footnotes are also important. State elections were also held in two German states on Sunday. In Brandenburg, once in East Germany, the Left maintained its strong second place, only five points behind the Social Democrats in what is now virtually the latter’s only real stronghold. The minister president of the state in the capital at Potsdam needs a partner to achieve a ruling majority. Will he stick to his former partner, the Christian Democrat Union, which again came in third? Or will he dare to defy the hate campaigns and invite the strong Left to join him in Brandenburg’s government? He must decide quickly.
In Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state bordering Denmark, it looks like a shaky coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, the same coalition as on the national scale. In any case, the Left — despite severe inner quarrels — won 6.6 percentage points, enough to gain seats in the state legislature for the first time. It is now represented in twelve of the sixteen German states. Its vigorous opposition to anti-social programs is feared in nearly all of them.
One final bit of good news: The neo-Nazi party, which formerly had seats in the Brandenburg legislature, has now lost them. It received hardly more than one percent of the vote.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is 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).