It recalled ancient Greek tragedies. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), founded in the 19th Century, is the country’s oldest party, and now its saddest one. On September 27th it suffered its worst election defeat since 1897, losing six million former voters and ending up with only 23 percent of the vote. It had been in government office for eleven years, as boss with the Greens under Gerhard Schroeder and as junior partner under Angela Merkel since 2005. Now it must share the less glorious opposition seats in the Bundestag with the Greens and the frequently despised and feared Left party. What a disastrous comedown for a once proud party!
What caused this loss and how does the SPD plan to stem the hemorrhage of members and voters? The first question is easy to answer. It betrayed its traditional base, the working people and the underprivileged. Cutting deep gashes in a once exemplary health system, pushing the retirement age up to 67, passing Draconian measures against the millions who lose their jobs, raising consumer taxes while cutting taxes on the wealthy and spending billions on weapon systems and armed expeditions to the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan, it either initiated such measures as government leader or continued them as Merkel’s junior partner. Any timid doubts by its rickety left wing were dispatched with Schroeder’s fabled “Basta” — “Enough of that” — and threats to withdraw needed support in the next elections. The habit of many SPD cabinet ministers, including Schroeder, to get top positions in big companies when they left office added additional color to the picture. Even a political imbecile could predict the backlash, if not its magnitude. In September it was the voters’ turn to say “Basta”!
How can the catastrophe be overcome? A recent congress in Dresden aimed at a new road plan. There were dozens of critical speeches about past sins and calls for a complete overhaul and return to the militancy of some nearly forgotten past. Indeed, it was a tradition to make strong demands when out of office. Again, it was proclaimed that it was not such a bad party after all and had a new program to win German hearts and minds as a party of the left! Or was it, after all, the center-left?
Among philosophers, “Buridan’s ass” refers to an undecided donkey standing halfway between two equal bales of hay and starving to death. If the SPD verged leftward it approached the positions of The Left, the very party it had ridiculed, denounced, and, whenever possible, ostracized. But keeping in the right lane (known as moderate) meant losing even more members and voters to the young party, which had already overtaken it in four out of five East German states, now in Berlin too, if only by a few noses, and was beginning to challenge it in the western states as well. But if it were to become a genuine opposition party, more or less leftish, it must further adopt — or plagiarize — the positions of The Left, without seeming to approach it too closely or losing its identity as a supporter of the “social market economy.” It feared being exposed to nasty red-baiting from the governing Christian Democrats and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) as an ally of The Left. Then, too, it could not ignore the hundreds of thousands of Euros from golden sponsors like Daimler, BMW, Porsche, or the Deutsche Bank.
The congress in Dresden seemed to indicate that its new leaders, many of them carryovers from the past, will continue to act like a toothless old lion, making loud roaring noises, but not all too loud. For example, when worried grassroots voices demanded that the SPD reverse its policy of postponing retirement pensions from 65 to 67, a key issue in unemployment-plagued Germany, the party’s new Secretary General Andrea Nahles, who still wears the progressive-looking smile she once adopted when she was really on the left in the party but little else, warned that “a quick change toward switching from 67 back to 65 would be completely unconvincing” and added vaguely, “We must develop a policy which hinders poverty in old age.” To switch feline metaphors, it did not seem likely that this leopard could change its spots.
Meanwhile the new government of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, the clever FDP boss, vice-chancellor, and foreign minister, was busy hatching out plans for its attacks on welfare. There was some debate on the issue of taxes — how soon and how much the wealthy should get away with, how best and how soon health care could be cut, whether the retirement age could be raised even further — and other such goodies. On most issues it appeared that the FDP is even further to the right than the Christian Democrats. It also appears that the worst is yet to come — after the crucial May elections in North-Rhine-Westphalia, the state with the biggest population and worst rust belt in western Germany (Merkel’s party needs to keep control there, the SPD must not lose even more bitterly in what was once its main fortress, and The Left must try to establish itself in the industrial heart of Germany).
After the elections the government will most likely wield its axe in earnest. To oppose it, and despite all former animosities, some kind of unity between the three opposition parties, the SPD, the Greens and The Left, would seem more urgent than ever. Only in Berlin and now in Brandenburg, surrounding Berlin, have the SPD leaders been willing to form a coalition with The Left. This question will continue to occupy the minds of politicians in both parties, and there are not a few on the Left, who fear that in such coalitions, with the SPD as senior partner, it would be the SPD which, like Dracula, could gain new strength by tapping the blood of an all too compromise-happy left.
Oskar Lafontaine played a key part in bringing together the older left in Eastern Germany and militant leftwing forces in Western Germany to form The Left and help it win an unprecedented 11.9 percent vote in September, largely because of new additions from West Germany, most dramatically in Saarland, his home state. He warned urgently, not against any possible coalition compromises, but against dangerous, unprincipled compromises, and was an unruffled, knowledgeable voice in the Bundestag and in rare talk show opportunities. There was amazement when he quit his leadership job in the caucus of The Left in the Bundestag. Now we know: he was hit by cancer and operated upon on the 19th. His future depends on the medical results.
Above and beyond personality issues, however, so important they can be, will the economic situation and government attacks on the welfare of most Germans be enough to achieve some kind of unity in opposition, not only with political parties but with student, ecology, gay, anti-globalization, and, above all, labor movements? The question is crucial for everyone, but especially for the battered SPD. Some say that its 23 percent vote marked rock bottom, and now look to an upturn. Others fear an even deeper abyss.
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).