Saturday, October 10, 2009

Germany: Left makes big gains in poll

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was returned to power in the September 27 federal elections. But the vote was marked by a record low voter turnout and a significantly increased vote for the far-left party, Die Linke ("The Left"). 

The election was a clear success for the CDU. Merkel's preferred coalition partners - the free-market fundamentalist Free Democratic Party (FDP) - increased its support by 4.8 points to an all-time high of 14.6%. 

This was enough to form a CDU-FDP government.

The FDP will replace the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) as coalition partners in the government of Europe's largest economy.

The SPD's support collapsed by more 6 million votes. It dropped a huge 11.2% to only 23% – the SPD's worst result since World War II. An SPD leader said on election night: "We have been bombed back into the Weimar Republic."

However, although the result has been widely labelled a shift to the right, the actual outcome doesn't bear this out. The total vote for the centre-right parties rose by only 3.4%, while the vote for the far-right neo-Nazi NPD dropped to just over 1%. 

The vote for Die Linke was 11.9% - a 3.2% increase on the 2005 result by the joint electoral ticket of two left-wing groups that was the forerunner to Die Linke. Formed in 2007, Die Linke is Germany's newest party and stands for pro-people, anti-corporate policies. 

Die Linke is also the only party that opposed the occupation of Afghanistan and has committed to withdrawing all German troops.

Voter apathy

The election campaign was possibly one of the dullest ever run, as the two big parties - CDU and SPD - had no major disagreements. 

The SPD has spent the past 11 years in government, presiding over increasing cuts to social welfare and rising poverty and unemployment, causing it to lose the support of many of its traditional working-class supporters. It struggled to distinguish its own neoliberal policies from those of its main rival during the campaign. 

The SPD's support was also weakened by its stated refusal to consider a coalition government with Die Linke. This made clear a vote for an SPD government was a vote for the status quo - and another "grand coalition" with the CDU.

Some disaffected SPD supporters shifted their votes to Die Linke or to the Greens. Millions, however, simply stayed home, enjoying the last warm weekend before winter. 

The voter turnout was the worst in 60 years, down to 70.8% from 77.7% four years ago. 

The CDU vote also dropped by 1.4%, down to 33.8% - also a record low. And while the CDU-FDP coalition won a slender majority in the Bundestag, the German parliament's lower house, the various left-of-centre parties still have a majority in the upper house.

The new CDU-FDP government is expected to introduce widespread cuts to social spending. The new government has promised to introduce tax cuts of up to 20%, reduce public spending, reverse the phase-out of Germany's nuclear reactors, increase the pension age to 67 and continue German military involvement in Afghanistan.

Die Linke

While the major parties lost, the minor parties gained. The big winner was the FDP, whose increased vote makes it the third-biggest party in parliament. The Greens also entered double figures for the first time, winning 10.7%. 

The most significant results, however were those for Die Linke. It was the first time in German history a party to the left of the SPD scored more than 10% in a national poll.

Die Linke was formed in 2007 when the Party of Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former ruling Socialist Unity Party of East Germany) merged with the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Social Justice and Jobs). The WASG was a group of disillusioned SPD members, trade unionists and socialists formed in 2005 in opposition to the neoliberal policies of the then-SPD-Green coalition government.

Since its formation, support for Die Linke has continually risen, polling as high as 15% despite a media scare campaign about the threat of "communism". 

Die Linke's election platform has resonated with the population. It calls for improving social justice and public welfare, introducing a minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, relaxing harsh unemployment laws, and cutting greenhouse gases by 90% by 2050.

More than 80% of the population opposes the war in Afghanistan, and Die Linke is the only party pledging to pull out German troops. 

In two years, Die Linke has now won seats in 10 of Germany's 12 state parliaments. In the western state of Saarland, an SPD heartland and home to Die Linke spokesperson Oskar Lafontaine, Die Linke won 21.3% in state elections in September, placing it just behind the SPD. 

In states in the former East Germany, Die Linke has fared even better, becoming the second biggest party in the region after the CDU - well ahead of the SPD. 

Die Linke won more than 25% support in a majority of eastern electorates. Die Linke leaders Gregor Gysi and Petra Pau won their Berlin seats with nearly 50% of the vote.

Die Linke's representation in the Bundestag has now increased from 54 to 76 MPs, 40 of whom are women.

In state elections held on the same day as the federal poll, Die Linke won 27.2% of the vote in the eastern state of Brandenburg and entered parliament for the first time in Schleswig-Holstein - winning 6% and five seats.

The SPD's disastrous results, and the increased support for Die Linke, puts the SPD leadership under significant pressure to move leftwards and work with Die Linke. Adding to the pressure, a recent survey found more than 50% of Germans thought socialism was a good idea, but had been badly applied. 

Die Linke's deputy leader Klaus Ernst, an ex-SPD member, said if the SPD did not change "the last one out can turn off the light".

Die Linke has expressed a willingness to enter into coalitions with the SPD and Greens to fight the looming attacks on public spending, in parliament as well as on the streets. However, the SPD so far appear unwilling to cooperate.

Die Linke, for its part, is faced with a new series of challenges. As the clearest voice opposing neoliberalism, Die Linke must find a way to relate to the millions of disillusioned SPD voters to organise the strongest possible response to the economic crisis and the pro-business policies of a right-wing government.

First published in Green Left Weekly, October 10, 2009

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