German Left Unity Endangered

Hopes were high.  There was near euphoria among left-wing Germans a half year ago: two main wings of the progressive movement, one quite strong in the eastern states, the other small but growing stronger in the much larger, more populous western states, joined together for an election campaign last year, had unprecedented success (over 8 percent), and made plans for forming one single party, stronger in its unity and attractive to many other groups and organizations on the left.  These hopes, though by no means buried, are now endangered.

The western base was the young WASG, an acronym for its unwieldy name, Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice.  It was formed by disgruntled Social Democrats, angry trade unionists, and a mixture of left-wing groups and grouplets. Though it had only small groups in the eastern states, it grew in the west when Oskar Lafontaine, the controversial, somewhat flamboyant former head of the Social Democratic Party, became one of its leaders.

The main eastern base was the Party of Democratic Socialism or PDS, which, to meet the wishes of its partner, changed its name to Left Party or, in a sort of compromise, the “Left Party-PDS.”  It is the descendant of the old ruling party in the GDR (the Socialist Unity Party) but completely altered its program and leadership when the GDR was joined to West Germany (or, as many, say, was annexed by it).  Most of the former two million members left the party when it became a disadvantage, not an advantage, to belong.  Those who remained were the faithful, less than 100,000, and their ranks are aging and thinning with the years.  But it has generally been receiving 15 to 25 percent of the vote in the East — and more when Christian Democrats and Social Democrats fail especially blatantly to keep their many promises and living standards come under increasing attack.  The smaller parties, Free Democrats and Greens, have never been very strong in the East.

In two states, the strength of the PDS proved a boon or a curse — depending on one’s point of view.  In the largely agricultural northern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (Angela Merkel‘s home grounds), abbreviated “Meck-Pom,” which borders on the Baltic, the PDS was strong enough to become junior partners with the Social Democrats in a coalition government, with the Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) left out in the opposition.  Much the same occurred in Berlin. After a giant financial scandal, the Christian Democrats, who till then ruled with the Social Democrats, were so discredited that they lost any chance to govern.  The Social Democrats, not tarnished so heavily, sought new partners (in order to govern, a coalition needs the support of at least 50 percent of parliamentary delegates).  Since the Free Democrats and the Greens (stronger in West Berlin) refused to work together, the Social Democrats decided to buck all West Berlin prejudices and join with the PDS, which it too had always maligned but which was strong in East Berlin, getting 30-40 percent in some boroughs (but only single digit figures in West Berlin).  Tradition was also defied by the choice of an openly gay mayor, an unusually tolerant Social Democrat who is still quite popular.

Unemployment in Germany
Click on the image for a larger view.

SOURCE: “Arbeitsmarkt,” Statistisches Jahrbuch 2005 für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Chapter 3, p. 3

The problem was that Meck-Pom has the highest jobless rate in all Germany, while Berlin was saddled with a financial debt pushing it to the edge of bankruptcy.  Neither condition could be cured quickly, if at all in present-day Germany, and many cost-cutting measures were demanded to get the local ship of state back on an even keel.  Many such measures were very unpopular.  The three Left-PDS ministers in the Berlin government (called senators in city-states) worked hard to avoid the severest hardships, but they supported other unpleasant measures they viewed as inevitable if the budget were ever to be met.  This included the privatization of some city enterprises, the raising of child care fees (though the Left succeeded in varying rates according to income), and closing down some city facilities found to be unaffordable.  A contract aimed at saving city jobs and expenses involved increasing work hours and shaving some benefits.  The situation in northern Meck-Pom was not too different.

The very left wing of the Left-PDS, especially its Communist Fraction (fractions are accepted and recognized in the pluralist concept of the PDS), opposed participation in the city-state government with the query: “Why should we repair the thievery of others and do the dirty work for big business?  Our job is to fight them, not save them!”  But the stronger wing of the Berlin PDS said, “No!  We got our votes from the many Berliners who expect us to take responsibility for the city’s citizens — which means putting things back in shape as humanely as possible.  We must stay in the government if we can!”

The answer to this argument is occasionally a sharp reference to the cozy positions and perks enjoyed by Left-PDS leaders in city government.

And now the WASG group in the city has taken the same line.  It cannot support a party which accepts so many compromises at the cost of the citizens.  The Left-PDS members should quit the government and engage instead in militant opposition.  Since this demand has been ignored, the WASG leaders voted at a recent conference to run a slate of their own candidates against the two members of the government coalition in the September city-state election, against Social Democrats and against the Left-PDS!   More or less the same situation prevails in Meck-Pom.  And it too faces elections soon.

Those would be unfortunate but not tragic splits under ordinary circumstances.  But the national Bundestag has a rule that electoral alliances electing deputies to the Bundestag on a joint ticket can only retain their status as a recognized caucus if their component groups do not oppose each other in state elections.  The wording is not very clear, but two opposing slates in either Berlin or Meck-Pom, or both, could mean that the 53 current deputies in the national Bundestag, a potent minority force, would no longer be treated as a unit, thus losing many key rights and privileges they currently possess.  And this would certainly jeopardize the process of joining the two parties into a single party by 2007, the current plan.

The WASG in Berlin has decided to poll its membership in the city-state before making a final decision.  There are only about 800 WASG members in Berlin, compared with about 10,000 Left-PDS members.  Not a few of the WASG members in Berlin are former members of the PDS who quit in protest — some are very dogmatic types, some are simply sticking to strong principles.

WASG leaders like Lafontaine, while often disapproving of the views and positions of Left-PDS leaders in Berlin and sometimes opposed to joining ruling coalitions at all, are trying to convince the WASG members not to jeopardize the whole idea of unity because of policies they disagree with in Berlin.   As for the Left-PDS leaders in Berlin, they are sticking stubbornly to their coalition plans, despite opposition from the WASG and from leftists in their own party.

A key, century-old argument of left-wingers is involved: whether to join in government efforts to alleviate bad conditions or at least keep bad conditions from getting worse, in the interests of the citizenry, or to reject such partnerships and stay in opposition , aiming at changing the whole system.

Some on the left warn that in view of increasingly vicious attacks on the living standards of working people and accelerating plans for military adventurism in Germany and the European Union, a strong left-wing voice is indispensable, even if some compromises are swallowed – until events and coming struggles compel new decisions and directions.  But others warn of compromises which corrupt left-wing parties, as they corrupted both the Social Democrats and the German Greens.

In any case, this sometimes very bitter dispute is already having its effect in the six important state elections due this year, three of them in March.

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).