GroKo Politics: No Change of Key in Germany

Some suggested the German “Word of the Year” should be “whistleblower” — in the Denglish language here breezily called “Neu-Deutsch” (“New German”).  But chosen instead was “GroKo,” headline shorthand for “Grosse Koalition,” a term used constantly during three months of wrangling between Germany’s two biggest parties, once seen as “irreconcilable foes,” to form a nice joint government.  (NB: in German, gross or grosse does not mean gross, it means big or grand!)

The wrangling between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) with its sister party in Bavaria, the even more right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU), had two main goals.  In its election campaign the SPD had tried to sound leftish so as to keep or win back the votes of union members and at least some progressive voters.  But now, to become part of a GroKo government, it had to tone down such escapades and sooth the fears of big biz bosses and their adherents in the CDU and in Bavaria, while trying not to let it look like capitulation.

Its second goal turned out to be easier: to come out ahead in the negotiations over who would get which Cabinet posts and rule the country for the next four years — unless or until GroKo splits apart sometime before 2017.

The Cabinet spoils were decided in an amicable way.  Although the two Merkel parties had received 41.5 percent of the vote, the SPD only 25.7 percent, they agreed on six Social Democratic ministers, Chancellor Merkel and five others from the CDU, and three from its allied CSU-Bavarians.  (Nine are men, six are women.)  The year began with the big question: how would these erstwhile foes get along (as they managed to do in two such GroKos in past decades)?

The SPD, in its election campaign, stressed two demands.  One was to raise taxes on filthily wealthy individuals and companies and huge inheritance sums (which it and the Greens had themselves lowered some years ago when they led the government — but now said should be reversed).

But alas, during the wrangling the SPD admitted, oh so reluctantly, that it must now make sacrifices for the sake of the GroKo — and agreed to forego any and all such tax increases on the wealthy.  It remained steadfast on its other demand, however, sticking valiantly to a measure long overdue in Germany: a minimum wage — of 8.50 euro an hour ($11.65).  In the final coalition agreement the Merkel side conceded the point, and those trying to subsist on 5, 6, or 7 euros, or even less — often only with second jobs or relief aid from the government — gained new hope.  No laws have been passed as yet; it seems that the minimum will only gradually go into effect by the final date of January 1, 2017.  But even before a law is passed some loud voices, especially in Bavaria, are demanding exceptions — for new employees, for working pensioners, students, seasonal workers, even for the long-time jobless.  As yet the SPD leaders are rejecting such exceptions as wedges aimed at weakening the whole measure.  We must wait and see, pressuring them to stick to their guns.  Of course, some cynics point out that 8.50 euro is not enough to live on decently even now and, since retirement pensions are based on earnings, it means a poverty-stricken retirement.

There was one interesting sideline.  Manuela Schwesig (SPD), a relatively young (39) Social Democrat with the impressive title of Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth — but new to national-level politics — proposed that young parents should work only 32 hours a week and have more time with their children.  The difference in pay could be compensated by taxes.  It took very few hours for her fellow East German (they are the only two in the Cabinet) to quash such an idea, calling it only “her personal vision” for the future.  Parents were already getting compensation for lost time with babies; there was no money for any such dreams!

Few changes were visible in public policies.  The head of the SPD, stout, friendly Sigmar Gabriel (not quite as stout but seemingly more friendly than New Jersey’s Christie), now Minister for the Economy and Electric Power, made no new promises; and his fellow SPD leader, the new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, looked less friendly outside Germany when he visited Athens and continued the same Merkel “austerity” policy imposed by powerful, wealthy Germany on the hard-hit countries of southern Europe.  He fully ignored a concurrent scandal in Athens exposing both German weapons-salesmen and Greek politicians who had illegally lined their very deep pockets while pushing wildly expensive armament sales, totally unnecessary and damaging for that unhappy, debt-ridden country but highly remunerative for a couple of German weapons-makers.

Armaments remained a key word for the GroKo New Year in the Ministry of Defense.  But just imagine — a woman as Defense Minister!  Ursula von der Leyen is the opposite of Sigmar Gabriel, not only because she is from the CDU but in appearance as well.  Slender, blonde, soft-spoken, and attractive, she was very popular as Family Minister in the last government and there are whispers that she might succeed Merkel.  Almost immediately after her inauguration we were treated to skillful TV shots of this little lady speaking in sincere, heart-warming tones to the largely male troops in Afghanistan.  But it soon became very apparent: her policy was not a bit more attractive than that of her predecessor: a flexible, mobile volunteer army, with the most modern weapons, ready to fly at short notice to any corner of the globe “where German interests were threatened.”  And, like her predecessor, she wanted drones!  Unarmed, she pointed out — at first!  But German troops must of course have the very best!  She also promised that military service would be made more palatable.  At least in the homeland it must be easier for the families of service members to be close and comfy, especially for the sake of the children!  Some critical voices were heard murmuring about children in less comfy countries, terrified — or killed — by German troops and already circling drones!

The GroKo parties dominate the German Bundestag with its 631 seats; in opposition are the Greens with 63 and the Left with 64 seats.  Since debating time on bills and resolutions is determined by the number of seats held, the government parties can talk their heads off while deputies from the two small parties must talk quickly just to get a few words in edgewise.  And even if they join together they don’t have the 25 percent of the seats needed to set up investigative committees or exercise other rights.  They are busy contesting this arithmetical disadvantage — and the result is still open.

A key current theme is the European Union, whose parliament is up for election in late May in all 28 member countries.  The left-wing parties’ caucus, ranging in a wide variety from the German Left (till now its largest member), Communist parties in France or the Czech Republic, to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, hopes to increase in number — now only 35 out of 766, worse even than the ratio in the Bundestag — and expects many more leftist delegates from Greece.  But in few countries is there much enthusiasm; skepticism abounds about the European Parliament and the whole EU, so voting turnout can probably break only negative records.  But the German Left party hopes to win more seats all the same and to strengthen the left-wing caucus, especially because extreme right-wing parties, often dangerously close to fascist positions, plan on unity among Islamophobes, anti-Semites, and Romany-killers from France, Hungary, Britain, Germany, and others — all itching to flex their growing muscles and get out their bludgeons.

But there is disagreement within the German Left party on this question.  The proposed election program for the May vote criticizes the EU as “neo-liberal, militarist, and largely undemocratic.”  This militant language, often coupled with a call for Germany to quit the NATO, has some Left party leaders worried, including Gregor Gysi, its best-known leader and top man of the party in the Bundestag.  There may be a quarrel on this issue at the February congress of the party in Hamburg, which will decide on the program and choose candidates for the May vote — on who to send to the European Parliament meeting alternately in Brussels, Belgium, and Strasbourg, France.  The wording may well be toned down.  But the disagreement again reflects the chronic rift within the party between those who want to tone down some demands in hopes of joining with the SPD and the Greens and replacing the GroKo in 2017 (or earlier if it should sooner implode) and others who say that the Left should make no compromises on a basic issue: no sending German troops anywhere abroad, for this would sacrifice its basic position as the only true “party for peace” and dilute it into an only slightly more leftish version of the SPD — hence basically superfluous.  It could well suffocate in such a three-way coalition!

At least outside the congress hall in Hamburg in February things should be peaceful by then.  The recent very violent confrontation between left-wing and anarchist groups and the police was followed by the designation of three sections of the city where the police could conduct an unprecedented stop-and-frisk policy — against anyone in the streets, without giving a reason.  This policy, which ended a few days ago, was ordered by the SPD mayor of the city and led to a storm of angry protests and warnings about police repression.  Someone managed to film a cop as he frisked one young man — and found him carrying a toilet brush!  The video of this event soon went viral and the toilet brush has become a humorous new symbol of opposition to police methods.

Some feared they (the methods, not the brushes) could spread to Berlin, where the CDU city senator in charge of the police was forced, at least temporarily, to drop his ultimatum to clear the protest tents in a local square by January 18th — or else!  The mayor (SPD) nixed the idea, which was also a jab at his partner in a Berlin city-state version of the national GroKo coalition of CDU and SPD, but here he was a bit stronger.

In can happily be reported that at least 10,000 took part in the annual march or quiet contemplation honoring Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who were murdered 95 years ago, and it all went off peacefully and with dignity (with no Stalin or Mao banners this time for the media to feature).  A counter-demonstration at a West Berlin site, like many past attempts, largely fizzled (with at most about 500 present).  At the regular left-wing conference a day earlier dozens of leftist publishers and groups hawked their wares or pushed their ideas, while in the upstairs hall there were progressive speakers of many kinds from all over Germany and interesting foreign guests as well — including Maria do Socorro Gomes Coelho, president of the World Peace Council, Denis Goldberg, fighting comrade of Nelson Mandela (and imprisoned nearly so long), and Turkish and Sudanese participants in the Berlin tent protest.  A highlight once again was a message from Mumia Abu-Jamal, still in prison after 32 years, but this time brought to the jam-packed, enthusiastic congress hall by his son, Jamal Hart, who used the visit to discuss possible new directions in international solidarity.

And finally — the Berlin weather was kind, waiting with a few very timid snowflakes until the day after we honored “Karl and Rosa.”

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).

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