The elections in Germany ended in almost total confusion, and forming a ruling coalition will be almost as tough as squaring the circle, but some things are clear.
The antisocial policies of the main government party, the Social Democratic Party of Gerhard Schroeder, were punished severely by angry voters. But so was the major opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union of Angela Merkel, which, despite its support of the same painful policies, had counted on a walkover. Both got stuck at about 35 percent, almost record lows.
When Schroeder surprised everyone by calling elections a year ahead of time, many Germans were bitterly angry at him and his party for cutting jobless pay, reducing pensions, increasing payments for medical care and medicine, and not only failing to keep his promise to cut unemployment in half, but watching it climb to the 5 million level, nearly 10 percent and almost 20 percent in eastern Germany. A self-confident Angela Merkel kept predicting a big victory; she began the campaign with a lead of almost 24 points. But as voters realized that plans she had up her sleeve, like those of her equally business-friendly partners in the Free Democratic Party, would make life even more miserable for working people and small businesses, they started to back away.
Some supported the Free Democrats, somehow hoping they might be more independent, when actually their policies were as bad or worse. But others returned grudgingly to the Social Democratic lesser of two evils. Thus, within very few weeks Schroeder, a clever campaigner who exuded confidence even when the odds seemed hopeless, staged an amazing comeback which almost closed the gap. By election time Sunday, the Social Democrats had moved to within a percentage point or two of the Christian Democrats. But neither one had a majority, not even when they joined with their traditional partners, the Greens with the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats with the Christian Democrats.
The factor which kept both camps from crossing the 50 percent line needed to form a stable government was the newly formed Left Party, a combination of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), descended but very different from the old ruling party in the German Democratic Republic, and a young party of disgusted Social Democrats, militant trade unionists and assorted leftwing groups and organizations in West Germany, the WASG.
Led by Gregor Gysi of the PDS in the east and Oskar Lafontaine, a former leader of the Social Democrats from Saarland, in the West, this new alliance scared the pants off all the others, who had counted on re-playing the age-old “Ring Around the Rosy” game with alternating personnel but almost similar policies. The PDS, with its voters’ base almost completely in the east, was reduced three years ago to two lonely delegates in the Bundestag, the others treating both women as if they didn’t exist and obviously hoping the next election would do them in for good.
But the new alliance dashed such expectations and became a real specter to haunt them, getting polling approval in the first weeks of the campaign in east and west combined from twelve or thirteen percent of the voters.
It was clear that attacks on this party and its leaders would be heavy and dirty. When Oskar Lafontaine blundered and spoke of “foreign workers” being used to replace German workers — a delicate subject in Germany — the press (wrongly) accused him of using nazi ideology and hastened to label the whole new Left party “reactionary” and “racist.” It seems likely that Lafontaine was indeed confused on the subject, but he quickly explained that he was not against foreign workers but against the operators who exploited them, stuffing them into inhuman container “living quarters” and paying them peanuts, thus depressing wage levels for everyone. The media campaign was a dishonest ploy: the PDS, by far the larger component of the new alliance, had always taken the lead in opposing racism and government measures against foreign workers and asylum seekers; while the Christian Democrats based part of their campaign on prejudices against the large Turkish minority, and the Social Democrats had too often displayed hypocrisy and worse when the treatment of foreign residents was concerned. Their Interior Minister was one of the worst in sowing and spreading anti-Muslim prejudice. But even the dirtiest fouls and libels were standard procedure in the unceasing battle to cut down the Left.
Their real reason for hating the Left Party was clear; it was the only one in the campaign to reject the idea, promoted in almost every newspaper and TV commentary in and outside Germany, that cutting workers’ rights and ripping apart the social welfare program achieved in year-long struggle was the way to overcome unemployment. This line about “tough but necessary reforms” to get the economy back on its feet, used by Schroeder and the Greens for seven years, conformed with the “reforms” demanded by big business: cut our taxes, cut our share of the bill for social security, medical care, and jobless pay, give us more freedom to fire workers whenever we like, and that will encourage us to do more hiring. The only trouble with this theory is that it never worked! The big companies demand — and received — more and more such cuts, while intimidating and throwing out more and more workers. In fact, their export profits are bigger than ever — it is domestic consumption which is drastically reduced. That is a main cause of the present downbeat economy (as well as the fact that the whole “free market” system, capitalism, is increasingly imploding).
Since the Left Party points this out and opposes cuts pushed by the other parties and their industrial and financial backers, the media have banned it from the list of “democratic parties,” relegating it to the ranks of “extreme parties on the left and right”! Thus, increasing taxes on millionaires and their corporations and using the money for education and social services while preventing the misuse of German troops in foreign military actions is slyly labeled subversive.
The propaganda had some effect. Perhaps even more potent than the propaganda was the growing anxiety about the havoc Angela Merkel’s big business advisers would wreak on living standards. Many worried voters switched back to Schroeder, and week by week, the polls cut the Left from 13 to 9, then to 7 percent of the vote.
Then why did supporters of the Left have such a joyous election night gathering in the huge tent near the old GDR Palace of the Republic (a symbol the West German politicians can’t wait to tear down)?
The election returns kept coming onto the giant screens hung around the tent and outside. The Left began at about 7.7 percent, then moved up to 7.9 percent, 8.1, 8.2, finally settling at 8.7 percent — more than double its rate of 2002. Higher than any polls had predicted, this meant full status as a regular caucus in the Bundestag, with over 50 seats (from a total around 600). It even meant overtaking the Greens of Foreign Minister Fischer, who got 8.1 percent.
Despite the complicated maneuvering involved in trying to agree on some governing coalition, all the other parties agreed they would never, ever join a coalition with the naughty party on the left. It will remain, as it always planned, in the opposition. But at last it will get the chance to speak out in the Bundestag and the media, opposing armament buildups and military adventures, fighting all soak-the-poor policies, exposing the hypocrisy of tolerating neo-nazis (if not in words then in actions), opposing all cuts in job protection policies. The Left cannot pass any laws, but its pressure can be very telling, especially with the new partnership creating an all-German party, visible in West Germany, too, where its candidates averaged 4 to 8 percent in most areas and nearly 20 percent in the Saarland region of Oskar Lafontaine. It can no longer be totally ignored.
The politicians and the media will do everything to splinter this new unity on the left. They will try to turn Lafontaine against Gysi (or vice versa), and split the varied groups and groupings among the often inexperienced Bundestag delegates, or between them and their constituents. But if they can stick together, at least on key policies, this could alter the whole German political scene. And since the PDS has been a key player in rebuilding leftwing cooperation on the European level, it can have an even broader effect, creating a ripple effect and encouraging leftists in other countries to overcome differences and move together against new, dangerous attacks against the people.
One last note: the loudest cheers in that big tent, aside from those greeting each new result of the voting, followed references to two issues: the fight to gain complete equality of men and women in leadership positions and opposition to all racist or anti-foreigner or neo-nazi attacks. Nothing similar was reported from the post-election gatherings of the other parties.
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).