Germany’s centre-right government is facing what many have dubbed a “hot autumn” of protests, as conflict over a range of social, political and environmental issues come to a head across the country.
As the governments of Europe attempt to offload the costs of the financial crisis onto working people, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has initiated a series of “austerity” measures aimed to undermine Germany’s social welfare system.
About 100,000 trade unionists took to the streets on November 13 to protest cuts to social welfare, including government plans to raise the pension age from 65 to 67.
On November 15, Merkel was successfully re-elected leader of her party - the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - with the support of over 90 percent of the party conference.
Facing criticism from the party's influential right-wing, Merkel has shifted her rhetoric rightwards, claiming that multiculturalism had "utterly failed", and calling on Germans to return to their "Judeo-Christian values".
The day before the CDU conference began, tens of thousands of protesters in Stuttgart, Dortmund, Nürnberg and Erfurt came out to oppose her government’s cuts.
Minister for labour Ursula von der Leyen has tried to defend the attack on pensions. Claiming it was necessary because of Germany’s low birth rate and high life expectancy, Von der Leyen described the move as “a question of fairness”.
Protesters, led by Germany’s largest union IG Metall, rejected the claim. They condemned the changes as an attack on working people designed to maximise corporate profits during the German economy’s current upswing.
Berthold Huber, head of IG Metall, told demonstrators in Stuttgart: “We don’t want a republic in which powerful interest groups decide the guidelines of politics with their money, their power and their influence.”
Unions also demanded higher wages and the introduction of a nation-wide minimum wage.
Opposition parties Die Linke (“Left Party”) and the Greens also condemned the cuts, as have some members of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD is struggling to recover from an historic low level of popularity, due in part to its support for similar anti-worker laws while in government, particularly the infamous "Hartz IV" legislation.
Disastrous health cuts
The governing CDU-Free Democrat (FDP) coalition government is also launching an attack on the country’s once world-class health system.
On November 12, the German parliament passed a controversial healthcare reform, aimed at reducing an 11 euro billion deficit in health spending. The move will lead to significantly higher health costs for German workers, but will have little impact on business.
Employees will now have to pay healthcare contributions of 8.3% of their gross salary - up from 7.9% - while employers’ contributions will remain at 7.3%. Any future increases in healthcare payments will be paid solely by employees, shifting the costs onto workers and disadvantaging the low-paid in particular.
Adolf Bauer, president of Sozialverband Deutschland (an organisation for the socially disadvantaged) called the reform a “disastrous turn” in the country’s healthcare system. Bauer said that “patients and the people are forced to bear the brunt of this reform”.
“Those who earn less money are the ones paying for the health ministry's deficit”, Bauer said. “This is a heavy blow for the balance between rich and poor in our country, which will soon mean between the sick and the healthy.”
A study released in February by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) found 14% of Germans were already living on or below the poverty line in 2008 - before the onset of the financial crisis.
"Chernobyl on wheels"
Germany’s autumn of discontent hasn’t been limited to purely economic and social issues, however.
Merkel’s recent announcement that Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors would have their life-span expanded by an average of 12 years, while funding for renewable energy would be delayed, has sparked rolling protests across the country.
In September, more than 100,000 people protested the move in Berlin. In Munich, 55,000 marched on October 9.
The decision has also been criticised as a dirty deal with the four main power companies, which stand to make at least 50 billion euros in extra profits from the extension at the expense of public safety.
Protests have also targeted nuclear waste disposal. On November 6, Germany’s biggest ever police operation - involving 17,000 police and costing more than 50 million euros - failed to hold back 50,000 people angry at plans to store spent nuclear fuel rods in rural Germany.
Protesters were blockading a train - dubbed a “Chernobyl on wheels” - carrying 123 tons of highly radioactive waste from France to an unsafe depot in the small north German town of Gorleben.
Police used savage force against peaceful demonstrators. Videos showed police beating people with their truncheons, punching them and throwing them to the ground, and using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons with little restraint.
Similar images of police brutality against protesters emerged from Stuttgart, the sleepy, nominally conservative, capital of the south-western state of Baden-Württemburg.
A broad alliance of social groups have led a series of rolling protests against the 4.5 billion euro rail project known as “Stuttgart 21” that would create a huge new underground rail-hub, connecting super-fast trains from Paris to Budapest and other cities in Germany.
The development would lead to the destruction of a heritage-listed railway station and iconic parkland, and has already experienced a massive blow-out in cost.
In late September, community protests against the project - and the lack of community consultation - were met with police brutality. Hundreds were injured and at least one pensioner was permanently blinded.
On October 1, up to 100,000 people marched in outrage at the police violence, and the Greens have surged to over 30 percent in the polls, only months out from a state election in March.
What political alternative?
Elections are due to take place in six of Germany’s 16 states during 2011, and the Greens seem set to capitalise the most from the rising dissent. Both the CDU and the SPD have slumped to all-time lows, while the Greens have surged in the polls to 24% nationwide, overtaking the SPD as Germany's most popular opposition party.
Support for the FDP has collapsed to 4%. The far-left Die Linke - formed between 2005 and 2007 by a merger of disaffected SPD members, left-wing academics and trade unionists, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (the reformed successor to the former East German ruling party) - remains steady on 11%.
Die Linke’s former leader Oskar Lafontaine warned his own party against softening its left-wing policies for electoral gain, however.
Speaking at a conference held to debate Die Linke's party program,Lafontaine reminded members that Germany already had four neoliberal parties (a reference to the role of the Greens in a SPD-Green neoliberal coalition government from 1998-2005).
He said what was needed was a party that was truly democratic and socialist, that supported the social and protests movements, and that worked in the interest of the majority to do away with the exploitation of workers.
Lafontaine also criticised the Greens for supporting the war in Afghanistan, saying that war was "the worst form of environmental degradation", and claimed the Greens had become a "party of the well-off", who had disconnected the ecological question from social justice.
"Unless you solve the property question, you cannot solve the ecological question", Lafontaine argued, and called upon German workers to learn from their neighbours - particularly France - in fighting the attacks on their rights and social conditions.