Left Foot Forward in Germany

September 28, 2009

In what apparently was the most boring election in German history, owing in part to the lack of charisma displayed by the leaders of the two main parties, there has been some fascinating results.

First, and most certainly least, the conservative CDU/CSU has stagnated.  In fact, their combined vote is down 1.5 percentage points on 2005.  This belies the almost adulatory coverage of Angela Merkel in the British media, which implied that she had mass support amonsgt the German people.  It would appear not.

The free-market Free Democrats (FDP) are almost certainly going to be Merkel’s coalition partners.  This is a Thatcherite party of small business and Yuppies that Daniel Hannan would feel at home in.  Their vote is significantly up, possibly benefiting from an anti-status quo vote, and an increasingly influential faction in the ruling class that demands more aggressive neoliberal policies.  Their voice will  be strengthened by these elections, and may push at an unlocked door when they press their coalition partners for these measures.

The big losers, in more ways than one, have been the SPD.  On the first-past-the-post seats they declined 10.5 percentage points on the 38.4% they achieved on that side of the ballot paper in 2005.  They slumped to 23% from 34.2% on the second, proportional vote.  They are suffering for a number of reasons.  They have participated as a mute partner in a CDU/CSU led government since 2005.  They backed the economic and foreign policies of that Government, including the deeply unpopular occupation of Afghanistan.  Many of their moderate voters either have opted for the real deal (CDU/CSU) or gone for a slightly less tainted alternative (the Greens).  Left-wingers will have preferred the social agenda of the Left Party.

Like New Labour, they have triangulated themselves into trouble.  They abandoned their base to attract more right wing voters, and now they have lost those voters, have found that their lack of loyalty to their traditional working class voters has been reciprocated.  Good.

German left-wingers are lucky, as they have somewhere to go – the Left Party.  The Left Party went from 8.7 % to 11.9%, which resulted in an increase of 22 seats to 76 in the Bundestag.  The Left Party has benefited from a proportional election system, the prominent pre-existence of the PDS in East Germany, and having the former SPD Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine as a figurehead.

What happens to the Left Party depends on how it uses its increased presence in the Bundestag and in State Parliaments.  There is a tendency, particularly in the East, to want to participate in coalitions with the SPD.  There is some tension between those in the West and in the East.  Bear in mind that while the electoral support for the Left Party is increasing in the West, it hits consistent heights in the East.

Something that makes me uncomfortable is the thought that, had it not been for the collapse of Stalinism, many of the leading figures in the Left Party in the East would be leaders of an oppressive, totalitarian state.

Coalitionism and the reformist/Stalinist element in the Left Party could seriously damage its prospects of being a mass force to be reckoned with, though given the nature of German politics, coalitions are far less damaging than they would be in the British political context.  The Left Party’s participation in the coalition Government of Berlin does not make them the 21st century German descendants of Ramsay McDonald and his ilk.  But it does undermine an anti-capitalist party to preside over cuts and privatisations.

The Left Party is a coalition of dramatically different political perspectives and cultures, and what happens in those internal struggles is of critical importance for socialism in Germany and Europe as a whole.  The political make up of the party will certainly improve one funeral at a time, but the critical battles ahead mean that this pace needs to be quickened in the direction of principled, genuine democratic socialism.