German Luck

It looks as though everyone lost. Or almost everyone. The German elections have come and gone. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his coalition, headed by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), are the formal victors. But despite the traditional optimistic announcements, there is confusion in the winning camp. And, for that matter, among the losers. What has happened?


All Europe watched the elections intently. Not simply for the reason that Germany is the largest and economically most powerful country in the European Union, a country which even in the age of American supremacy has enormous importance in the world. The German elections were supposed to confirm or reverse a widely observed trend that has seen social democrats lose elections in countries from Italy to Holland. Everyone wanted to know whether the German social democrats would share the fate of their colleagues in neighbouring countries, or whether Schroder’s popularity would allow the government to survive.


Not long before the Germans, the Swedes elected their parliament. There, the left came out ahead. The Social Democrats and their allies in the Left Party (the former communists) won 48.4 per cent of the votes. The Greens attracted another 4.6 per cent, ensuring them 17 seats in the parliament and providing the left-centre government with a solid majority. Scandinavia, however, is a different world. In Scandinavia it is perfectly respectable, part of the national culture and way of life, to vote for socialists. The rest of the continent scarcely glances at these northern countries. Germany, however, is a different matter.


The fears (and hopes) that the German Social Democrats would be defeated were not borne out. But the vote for Schröder’s party was unimpressive, to say the least. The SDP came out of the elections “neck and neck” with its main conservative opponent, the Christian Democrats (CDU). Early in the vote-counting the Christian Democrats even spurted ahead, but the final tallies showed that the government and opposition parties finished up in a virtual tie. For the CDU this was a disappointing outcome, but they nevertheless made big gains. The Social Democrats, by contrast, lost votes.


The coalition survived because the Greens, the junior partner in the government, gained an unexpectedly large number of votes. The Free Democrats, the partner of the CDU in the opposition, also “gained weight”, but not as much as the Greens. The elections, in fact, came down to two “duels”. The SDP cannot be said to have won its contest with the Christian Democrats, but the Greens decisively outplayed the Free Democrats, and so saved the coalition. Schröder is now faced with difficult negotiations over the formation of a new cabinet. Joschka Fischer and other leaders of the Greens will demand new posts.


A further result of the elections has been the defeat of the Party of Democratic Socialism. At every election until this one, the PDS has steadily gained votes. The party was smeared with mud or subjected to a press blackout, and attempts were made to isolate it, but the number of its supporters simply kept rising. This happened not only in the former East Germany, where the PDS had arisen on the ruins of the old nomenklatura communist party, but also in the west. Over the past year and a half, however, the situation changed markedly. The PDS came to be seen as an “ordinary party”. Its representatives first entered the provincial government of Mecklenburg-Pomerania, and then the coalition holding power in the unified city of Berlin. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which is associated with the PDS, began receiving federal money like any other party-aligned foundation. The PDS leaders started getting attention from the press.


The leaders of the PDS in turn concentrated their thoughts on the prospect of taking part in a coalition with the SDP on the federal level. The party, it was considered, needed to become regierungsfähig – fit for participation in government. In other words, as decent and moderate as possible. The result was that with each day that passed the PDS became harder to distinguish from the SDP. But what need was there for a second social democratic party, if one already existed? Moreover, one that was far stronger and more influential? Through becoming “respectable”, the PDS rendered itself uninteresting, and support for it politically senseless. The party accepted responsibility for unpopular measures carried out by the governments in Berlin and Mecklenburg. It started arousing displeasure among its own supporters and activists, and not surprisingly, was punished by them. Voters deserted the party, even more of them in the east than in the west. Instead of taking part in the government, the PDS is now faced with working out how to get back into parliament at the federal level (the party is now represented in the Bundestag by only two deputies, elected from single-member constituencies). The lesson will perhaps do the PDS good. The leadership will inevitably have to be changed (it is only in Russia that Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov can regularly lose elections and carry on triumphantly heading his party). It may be that the new leaders will again turn the wheel to the left.


In sum, everyone lost. The Social Democrats were humbled, the Free Democrats were crushed, the Christian Democrats were disappointed, and the democratic socialists suffered a rout. And what about the sole “winners”, the Greens? Needless to say, they are celebrating. But the Greens should not be too cheerful either. The electors were not voting for the politics of the Greens, because the Greens have had no politics for a long time now. The era has passed when supporters of radical environmental movements rallied beneath the party’s banners. The Greens are now simply an association of careerists who share a more or less left-wing past. Their policies boil down to obtaining jobs in ministries and parliamentary commissions. But precisely because the Greens themselves do not know what they stand for, their party has become the last resort for disillusioned voters. The other parties all arouse a negative reaction, but the Greens do not evoke any feelings whatever. Or at worst, merely contempt. People who have not wanted the rightists to come to power, but have found Schröder repellent, have voted for Fischer’s careerists. They have got what they wanted. The right has not come to power, and Schröder and company have been assured of a headache for four years to come.


The conclusion is thus compelling that in the political sense, there were no winners. But there is something else that should not be forgotten. In the final weeks before the elections, Schröder made a sharp turn to the left. Recalling his Marxist-pacifist past, he began to make resounding anti-American speeches, demanding that Bush abandon his crusade against Baghdad. As soon as Schröder put on his radical garb from 1968, his ratings shot upward. Precisely at this moment, it became clear that the SDP could hold onto power. The ship of the PDS, however, had sunk irretrievably to the bottom. When the Social Democrats made their left turn, they effectively rammed their left partners, who had counted on being able to distinguish themselves at least on the basis of their anti-war position.


In Sweden as well, it was left-wing rhetoric that won the elections. The theory that only moderation can win elections was disproven once again. In Schröder, a radical was reawakened during the election campaign. Whether this radical will still be there the day after the cabinet is named, however, is a quite separate question. The voters were fooled once again. This, of course, is what generally happens.

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