Opposition and opportunity in Germany

Issue: 125

Stefan Bornost

Just one month after Angela Merkel’s new conservative-liberal government took office in Germany it faces its first difficulties. Franz Josef Jung of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) resigned from the government amid allegations of a cover-up relating to the Kunduz massacre in Afghanistan in which up to 142 people lost their lives, including numerous civilians. Also dismissed the previous day for the same reason were general inspector Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the most senior military figure, and state secretary Peter Wichert.

At the same time, protests by students and school pupils including the occupation of parts of the main universities have forced the government to promise better funding of education. Referring to the billions in taxpayer money given to the banks, one student banner read, “€500,000,000,000 and what do we get?” Since the introduction of tuition fees, many students have been forced to find part-time jobs and many other young people think twice about beginning study at all.

The press has attributed the new government’s disastrous early days to the incompetence of the cabinet. But there are far deeper contradictions that will plague Angela Merkel in the months ahead.

The election of 27 September brought to power a conservative-liberal government—the most right wing combination possible in German politics. But this does not represent a rightward shift in German society. The conservatives of the CDU and Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) had their worst showing since the Second World War. The conservative-liberal camp actually lost a total of 300,000 votes.

The coalition came to power on the back of a collapsed social democracy. The losses of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) are dramatic. The support for the SPD has halved since 1998. This is a legacy of the
so-called Agenda 2010 reforms—a general attack on the welfare state started by SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder and furthered by his successors.

The coalition of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) won despite the majority of the population’s rejection of their core projects. For example, 77 percent of people are for a legally enshrined minimum wage, which the new government rejects. 61 percent want a shift away from nuclear energy, while the government wants to give nuclear bosses a longer running time for their plants. 55 percent are for an immediate military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the government wants to send more troops.

The new government is all too aware of the unstable ground on which it stands. It announced that it will correct “social injustices” brought about by the SPD—chancellor Angela Merkel is doing her utmost to give the impression that she will not cut social standards.

But attacks will come. State debt soared after the banks were bailed out. The government pledged to reduce the debt fast, but at the same time they want to start their term with a €20 billion tax break for big business. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that they will try to get the money from the working class.

But Germany’s party of the radical left, Die Linke, was one of the winners in the election. Results across the entire former West improved, while in the former East 16 candidates were directly elected—13 more than in 2005.

Die Linke’s demands were aimed at workers, school and university students, pensioners and job seekers. As a result, 56 percent of voters believe that Die Linke stands up for the socially disadvantaged. 18 percent of workers and 26 percent of all unemployed people voted for Die Linke.

Now the debate begins inside Die Linke about working in the new political environment. A common position is to opt for a double strategy in the fight against the CDU-FDP. First, to build on the ground side by side with trade unions and campaigns against CDU-FDP attacks. Second, to prepare the way for an SPD-Die Linke-Green Party national government after the 2013 general election by engaging in similar state governments.

This strategy has two big problems. For starters, its two prongs do not complement one another, but rather one undermines the other. Resistance against the coming cuts and opposition on the streets are absolutely necessary. Die Linke can play an important role here because it is credible and has earned people’s trust. This credibility would suffer massively through any government participation under the current fiscal conditions.

The capitalist crisis has meant a drastic slide in federal budget revenues. If in coalition, Die Linke would be part of sharp attacks. This has already happened in Berlin, where the party rules together with the SPD, resulting in a drastic loss of support. In spite of that experience, Die Linke and the SPD formed a government in the federal state of Brandenburg. The SPD dictated the terms, forcing through a decision to cut the number of workers employed in public services from the current 51,000 to 40,000 over the next few years. Die Linke in Brandenburg is taking part in destroying every fifth job in the public service sector. This is flying in the face of the commitment of Die Linke nationally to expand the seriously understaffed public services and has led to anger among many activists of Die Linke, who feel sabotaged by the Brandenburg comrades.

The second problem with the “double strategy” is that it pins its hopes on a “reformed” SPD that will become a working partner for social policies in government. But past experiences offer the opposite picture. The SPD has often moved to the left in opposition, just as it did under the leadership of Oskar Lafontaine towards the latter part of CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl’s term in 1995-8. But this was followed by the Schröder government’s Agenda 2010 policies.

The political problems of the SPD lie deeper than a few bad individuals—all factions in the SPD are united in the perspective that excessive profits form the basis of social welfare policies. This leads to the sell-out of all manner of reformist policies. Under the given circumstances it is more likely for pigs to fly than for the SPD to make a sustained shift to the left.

The debates about Die Linke’s trajectory will shape the political landscape on the left for years to come.