Not only Washington but Berlin, too, has a new crisis, and no one can predict how it will end! The dramatic factor, almost totally ignored by the media, has been the crucial importance of Germany’s new Left Party.
When neither Gerhard Schroeder’s ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens nor the right-wing Christian Democrats and Free Democrats could muster enough votes in the September elections to achieve a majority in the Bundestag, both main parties simply dropped their junior partners to form a so-called “grand coalition,” to be headed by the first woman chancellor, Angela Merkel and Franz Muentefering, Schroeder’s alter ego, as vice-chancellor.
This was not as hard as it seemed. Both big parties, with their junior
partners, had long cooperated on a program to “save Germany’s economy” by soaking the poor and rewarding the rich. True, Schroeder’s Social Democrats had been more subtle about it, and were better on some lesser issues, but all had agreed to cut jobless benefits, increase medical costs, freeze pensions, and avert their eyes from longer work weeks and cuts in pay and benefits. Taxes on the very wealthy were quietly reduced. Not till the hectic summer election campaign did Schroeder and his crew try to cover their tracks and sound social. This won back many voters who were skeptical but hoped for a “lesser evil” than the openly reactionary Merkel.
All during October, the top leaders of the two parties have been meeting to decide who gets which job and to patch up a joint program, if possible even worse than the old one. Their first agreements on saving Germany from bankruptcy were no surprise: postponing retirement age from the present 65 to 67 (not immediately, they hastily added) and upping the Value Added Tax (like a sales tax) from 16 to 18 or 20 percent. Somehow, they insisted, this would promote investment.
But the next session of the Bundestag promised some changes! Instead of two lone deputies from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), isolated and ignored, too few for the caucus status which would protect them, there would be 54 delegates from the new Left Party, an electoral alliance between the PDS, strong in the East, and the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice, new but getting stronger, especially in the West. Their single ticket got them a surprising 8.7 percent of the vote and the 54 delegates (28 men and 26 women).
Though not enough to pass legislation, they would be strong enough to make trouble for the “grand coalition” and expose its trickery on all the social issues and on growing military expansionism. With a force on the left exposing their “compromises” with big business, the future of the Social Democrats was severely threatened — they had already suffered heavy losses.
Over the weekend, the SPD executive committee had to choose a candidate to recommend for the party presidency. Franz Muentefering, secretary general, Schroeder’s buddy and the new big boss, told the committee who to choose: his own colorless, little-known favorite. But to everyone’s amazement, Andrea Nahles got 23 votes in the secret vote — to 14 for Muentefering’s pale choice. Nahles, a woman of 35, was leader of the Social Democrats’ so-called “left wing,” which had long chafed under Chancellor Schroeder’s dictatorial rule but constantly caved in when he
waved his iron-tipped scepter. After his disastrous decision to call
early elections, however, he had little power. With the challenge of a
growing new force on their left, some Social Democrats decided to make a stand and save the party from losing its tattered shreds of popularity.
But Muentefering was having none of it. In a fit of cold rage at such
disobedience, he announced that he would quit as secretary general.
Some said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” But others trembled at this “left-wing revolt.” The party was thrown into turmoil. And not only the Social Democrats. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, sure until now that they could agree on everything of importance in the new coalition, began to worry about their partner. In Berlin, where the left-leaning Social Democratic mayor Klaus Wowereit has a local coalition with the PDS and had voted for Nahles, some nasty voices warned that just such a sinister coalition, perhaps with the Greens, was being planned on a national level. This was firmly rejected by everyone — for now!
All this chaotic maneuvering was taking place even before the new Bundestag had its first meeting and the Left Party got a chance to speak out loud. But that old specter was already doing its haunting.
Before long, of course, as in the old game where rock always breaks
scissors, the revolt showed signs of breaking down. Muentefering said he was willing to go on negotiating with Merkel, and would also be willing to take a key job in the new Cabinet (also as Vice Chancellor). And a very pale, almost frightened-looking Andrea Nahles said she had not really expected that Muentefering would take things so seriously, and perhaps she had better not be the candidate after all. It was not her first retreat — but perhaps her saddest.
Nevertheless, it was a sign that business as usual — at the expense of
the hard-working but poor, the jobless, the single mothers, and the
children — was no longer so simple. There was a new force to be reckoned with, with plans for creating a regular new amalgamated party, supported by many militant union leaders and anti-globalists. If it could resist splitting — always a danger on the left — and could connect good oratory in the Bundestag with organized action on the outside — German politics would never be the same.
There is also a postscript: On this same weekend, delegates from 17
left-wing parties of Europe and observers from nine more, from Portugal to Cyprus and Estonia, met in Athens for the first regular party congress of the European Left Party. Among the visitors were Polisario from the West Sahara, the Palestinian PLO, Israel’s Communist Party, and the Uruguayan Frente Amplio. Plans were made for a feminist offensive and for actions in all Europe on issues like minimum wages and antimilitarism. Reelected as chairman was Fausto Bertinotti from Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista. Among the most active participants was the PDS, now becoming a new, larger Left Party.
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).