A former top leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been saved from expulsion and possible disgrace, and Germany’s oldest party, founded in 1863, has huffed and puffed its way out of one more pothole. Wolfgang Clement, 68, once the powerful economics minister in the cabinet of Gerhard Schroeder, now on the board of one of Europe’s most powerful coal, atom, and energy giants, can continue sniping at any attempt by the party to look leftward. But more pitfalls on its hurtling downhill drive are undoubtedly in the offing.
The SPD has been losing members and voters by the thousand since Schroeder with his Green coalition partners defied traditional party principles and the constitution by supporting the NATO war against Serbia. Far worse in terms of popularity were the economic “reform” measures which cut basic supporting payments for the jobless, forcing them to accept absolute minimum-pay jobs or else lose even their sparse welfare payments. This reduced hundreds of thousands to despair while chopping away at the wages of those workers with regular jobs. The retirement age was raised from 65 to 67, although even men and women over 45, once laid off, had only narrow chances of ever finding new jobs. Another series of “reforms” made medical and dental care costlier. But taxes for the super-wealthy and the corporations were actually reduced to even lower rates than before. All inner-party opposition to such measures was harshly stamped out.
Met by loss of popularity at the polls, the Social Democrats were forced in 2005 to become junior partners of the right-wing Christian Democrats, led by the politically born-again East German whiz kid Angela Merkel. The Merkel bunch, always supportive of just such harsh “reforms,” was hardly good medicine for the SPD, whose popularity in the opinion polls dropped much faster than that of its coalition partner’s. The chances for a comeback in the national elections next year have been looking slimmer and slimmer.
Then, a year ago, a dynamic provincial SPD-leader in the state of Hesse showed how the tables might be turned. In elections last January, Andrea Ypsilanti, 51, led a sharp attack against the ruling Christian Democrat, Koch, who had stooped to the dirtiest of racist, anti-foreigner levels in his campaign. She defied his appeal to old prejudices and promised truly social measures in her state, like an anti-poverty program and a return to free college education. The result was a radical cut in Koch’s prevailing right-wing majority — his CDU got 36.8, the SPD got 36.7 percent, just short of victory.
But the appearance of the new party, The Left, on the West German scene had altered the whole scene. It squeezed past the 5 percent hurdle (with 5.1 percent) and won its first six seats in the Hesse state parliament. Without claiming a share in a new state government, it was willing to use these six votes to support an SPD-Greens coalition as long as a progressive policy was followed. This would have given Ypsilanti a tiny lead and made her minister president, only the second German woman to attain such a position. But one Social Democrat in the legislature said, “Not with me. I reject any and all cooperation with The Left,” which is still labeled as the evil offspring of the nasty old GDR (though the leader of The Left in Hesse, a West German, is a leading figure in the Hessian peace movement). Ypsilanti gave up, at least until now, and the reactionary racist, Koch, is still acting minister president.
But Wolfgang Clement, who does not even come from Hesse, had sabotaged Ypsilanti by stating in a key newspaper before the election that, though a Social Democrat, he would not vote for Ypsilanti. He opposed her call to move away from atomic energy and big new coal plants. Clement’s opposition was no surprise; after leaving office as a Social Democratic minister he joined the board of the giant utility network, RWE, which stood to lose over 3 billion Euros with even a partial renunciation of atomic power. His position was no different from that of any hired lobbyist — and of former Chancellor Schroeder and other Social Democratic bigwigs who received similar jobs with big business almost before they had cleaned out their desks in their government offices.
By no means all the grassroots Social Democratic membership had quit in disgust (although the number of members recently dipped below that of the Christian Democrats for the first time since 1945). Some decided to stay and fight to save the party’s political honor; they accused Clement of betraying his own party and called for his expulsion.
What followed recalled a hive full of bees when a bear barges in. How could anyone attack Clement, with his long career in the party and his many services to it? How ungrateful could such heretic members be, demanded virtually every right-wing media pundit inside or outside the SPD. Some of the opposition backed down. If Clement took back what he said and refrained from such sabotage in future there was no need to expel him. At first Clement remained obstinate and arrogant as ever. But as the hole got deeper, threatening to split the party even more, its weak-kneed chairman Kurt Beck tried to smooth the path and save his own political neck by pressuring Clement to retreat just a little. Almost no one recalled the many left-wingers expelled over the years for far lesser reasons.
Finally the stubborn old warrior came by bicycle to a press conference where he half-heartedly apologized to anyone he might possibly have distressed. But, he added, I haven’t changed my views and will continue to utter them loudly whenever I see fit.
That may have been the end of this summer episode. It has hardly ended the downward course of the party in its fight to survive as a major player. Its main effort currently is to sound more progressive again, by swiping demands of The Left for a minimum wage and improvements in pensions and jobless pay. It has usually tended to cave in whenever the Merkel bunch put the screws on, but with key provincial elections, the vote for European Union delegates, and the big national election all approaching, it wants to look tougher again. It is trying desperately to stay well ahead of the Left, which is now getting 11-14 percent in national opinion polls, with the SPD in the low 20s. In one East German province, Thuringia, however, The Left is now neck and neck with the ruling Christian Democrats, both achieving approval rates of 31 percent, while the SPD is down to 20 percent.
In West German Saarland, the home of The Left’s co-chairperson Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD is equally desperate. But current suspense centers on the Bavarian elections on September 28th, when the SPD and Greens hope to end the long-standing “Christian” majority, while keeping the Left from winning any seats. It looks like a tight race either way. But it would seem that the only real hope for the SPD is to break its strong ties with big business and recall its one-time struggle for the rights of working people. If it took such a policy, its present writhing and despairing about possible arrangements with The Left could become superfluous. It might regain strength and get out of some nasty potholes. But that’s a very big “if”!
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).