Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Left party make big gains in German elections

Rather enthused with the success of the Left party in the recent German state elections. Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel will be feeling less confident about the upcoming federal election in four weeks time, after some significant defeats in two of the three state ballots over the weekend.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has lost its majority (31.2%) in the eastern state of Thrirrua. The Left party received 27.4% of the vote beating the SPD into third place on 18.5%. If the Left and the SPD are able to form a coalition there is a chance the Left's Bodo Ramelow will become the party's first ever Premier of a state.

In the West German state of the Saarland, home to Left party co-leader Oscar Lafontine, the Left got 21.3% of the vote, a big improvement on their 2004 result of 2.4%. With 24.5% for the SPD and 5.9% for the Greens, there is the potential to chuck the CDU out of another state.

The CDU did better in Saxony (40.2%) and will probably govern with the FDP(10%). In this state the Left (20.6%) got nearly twice the vote of the SPD (10.4%).

Germany is currently governed at the federal level by a grand coalition of the largest centre right party, the CDU/CSU and the historically centre-left SPD. In the upcoming federal election Merkel hopes to gain the numbers to spurn the SPD in favor of the free market FDP.

The Left party was formed in 2007 as a coalition between a breakaway group from the SPD, WASG, largely based in Western Germany, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) from the East. WASG included many trade unionists, and a former leader of the SPD, Oscar Lafontane, who is now co-leader of the Left. Its economic policy is not that much more radical than the policies of New Zealand's first Labour Government when it was elected in 1935. Central to the economic policy of the German Left party is: "a Keynesian use of state intervention to balance market forces. In the current election program, this includes socializing the entire banking system, outlawing non-transparent financial products, hedge funds, and venture capitalism, and restricting currency markets."

In many ways the low vote for the SPD in Sunday's elections is a continuation of the loss of support that occured under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's administration, where he pushed the SPD towards more neoliberal economic policies and cut back the welfare state. Unfortunately, the current SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeir is regarded with suspicion by many on the left, given he was an architect of Schroder's right wing welfare and labour reforms.

The SPD has continued to refuse to form a federal coalition that involves the Left party, on the grounds that the PDS was once the old East German Communist Party. In the last federal election in 2005, a majority of Germans voted for a centre-left government, yet they got a centre-right Government instead because the SPD chose to form a government with the conservatives rather than deal with the left. Now the SPD risks loosing its brand from being in bed with the conservatives.

"On the federal level it's very clear, there will not be cooperation with the Left," said SPD head Franz Muentering after preliminary election results from Sunday announced.

Of course a better explanation for the SPD sniping, is that like other former social democratic parties that have embraced key principles of neo-liberalism, it just hates having competition to its left. The attitute of the German Greens towards the left has also been hostile, despite the Left highlighting the common policies of the two parties.

The SDP may fear the reaction of the CDU to a centre-left-left coalition, as the CDU runs hysterical scare campaigns against the prospect of a so called red-red coalition, highlighting the 'communist past' of the PDS and the Left party. I find it quite bizarre that large sections of the German media have bought into this neo-McCarthist nonsense and refer to the left as 'toxic' and the 'political pariah' of German politics.

It is time that someone called the CDU's bluff - most importantly because the CDU can't claim to have a perfect history either. One of the CDU precursor parties, the German National People's Party formed a coalition with the Nazis in 1931. As part of the short lived Government of National Concentration, the party supported Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and the Enabling Act which was the key step towards establishing Hitler's dictatorship. Another CDU forerunner, the Centre Party, more reluctantly supported the Enabling Act. To cap it all off, in December 1966 the CDU made a former Nazi the Chancellor of Germany. Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger was a former card carrying Nazi and worked in radio propaganda section of the Nazi Foreign Ministry. I don't wish to make strong comparisons here, only to demonstrate that perhaps those in glass houses should not be so ready to throw stones.

There must become a point where all the huffing and puffing attempting to associate the Left with the PDS communist past simply becomes stale and irrelevant. Given the passage of 20 years, it is close to the point where the political generation with that past has passed the torch to new representatives. Even those who were involved with the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany, such as Lothar Binksy, were from the younger generation who supported Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. Binsky is now part of the moderate social democrat faction of the Left, and a co-leader of the party.

The fact that the SPD and the Left have been in coalition government together in Berlin since 2001 ought to cut the wind from the windbags.

For the record I greatly admire what the SPD managed to achieve in the years after World War I, where they created a welfare state well ahead of its time, despite the crippling economic burdens of the Treaty of Versillies. It also must be said the SPD were intollerant of their left even then. But the SPD can't continue to trade on its history while appeasing the neoliberals in its ranks.

Under a political squeeze from the Greens and the Left, the SPD has adopted some politices that we would be unlikely to see from New Zealand Labour at the moment, such as a small tax rise for high income earners and free tertiary education for a person's first degree. We are talking about continential Europe here - not the wannabe Anglo American wild west.

A coalition with the Left Party may have the effect of revitalising the SPD, in a similar way to the way the involvement of the New Zealand Alliance in the government in 1999-2002 gave the appearance of rehabilitating the Labour party from its rabid neoliberal 1980s. A SPD-Left coalition would also serve to rehabitate the Left from its proported past - perhaps thats just what the SPD are afraid of.

So next month I am hoping that Germany will once again give the combined forces of the The Left, The SPD and the Greens a majority of support. Lets hope the SPD learn the lesson from 2005 and remember whose side they are meant to be on.

It is possible left leaning German voters used these state elections to send a message to the SPD - the question is - are they listening?

Unfortunately the current polls seem to indicate a CDU/FDP government is more likely, with the FDP also doing well in Sunday's state polls. One poll showed the Left party on an all time high of 15%, 5% behind the SPD, with the Greens on 10%. The CDU/CSU/FDP together gained 49% support.

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At 10:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. I see comparablog has some brief comments also

At 12:27 pm, Anonymous David said...

The Left Party's results are positive for all those who hope to see a left alternative to the "social liberalism" embraced by former centre-left parties like the SPD and Labour.

The Left party is a broad left coalition, winning mass support.

However, in my view, the experiance of the Labour-Alliance coalition should warn against placing hope in a Left-SPD coalition.

The Alliance continually watered down its policies and principles to appease Labour, ultamatley accepting the cotinuation of the neo-liberal status quo.

When it finally got into coalition with Labour, it was sucked in, chewed up and spat out.

At 11:56 am, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

David - by and large I agree.

I nearly added a line to the post above about the need for the Left party to insist on a hard bargain with the SPD, but by that stage the post was already too long.

As I understand it following the last election in Germany the Left made an offer to support the SPD-Greens in something like a confidence and supply arrangement, however the SPD decided to go into Govt with the CDU instead.

There are differences in the political culture between NZ and Germany.

The Alliance was too soft on Labour - no argument there - it was a problem with Alliance leadership. During the so called 'Winter of Discontent' of 2000, Labour were completely spooked by the undemocratic demands of the bosses and were attempting to reverse on key policies. If the Alliance had stood up to Labour publicly at this point I believe the history of the Labour-Alliance Govt could have been very different, and could have lasted more than one term. The Progressives don't count, they were Labour MPs in all but name.

In New Zealand I believe a key problem is that National and Labour insisted on enforcing a hardline Westminister style of cabinet collective responsibility when it wasn't appropriate in an MMP environment. This is part of the reason small parties have since opted for less important ministries out of the main cabinet in return for more room for differentiation on policy.

There hasn't been an example of a formal coalition that has lasted more than one term in NZ - and IMHO National and Labour, the old FPP parties need to take most of the blame for this.

The political culture of Germany is a little different in that they have had examples of long term coalitions (such as the SPD-FDP coalition from the late 1960s to 1982) where the smaller partner has not been squashed to death like the Alliance and NZ First in New Zealand.

At 12:00 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Thanks Anon - Good to find another blog with an interest in the German election - I have left a comment over there.


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