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German election offers chance of real breakthrough for left

Andy Newman reports from Berlin

 

 

The election here does offer the possibility of a real breakthrough for the hard left. I have only been following it from TV and newspapers, and I am constantly reminded of the limitations of my A level German!

 

The PDS-Die Linke is standing at 8% in the polls, higher than the Greens who are at 7%, but this obscures the fact that in some parts of the East the PDS are in the lead. Germany has more than 5 million unemployed, and millions more live in insecurity. The SPD-Green government has cut benefits for the long term unemployed in the Haartz IV reforms. As PDS leader Gregor Gysi correctly says, “a black (Tory) – yellow (liberal) government will sharpen the reforms of the red-greens still further. Neither the SPD nor the Greens can credibly oppose this – it is the continuation of their own project”.

 

The SPD are certainly playing up the danger of a Tory CDU, neo-liberal FDP coalition government, but this is unlikely to be as effective as Blair’s use of the same tactic: Kanzler Helmut Kohl’s former government does not cast the same terrible shadow as Margaret Thatcher and John Major; and the electoral system (similar to that used in Wales, Scotland and the London assembly) gives significance to votes for minor parties.

 

It is symbolic that the Brandenburg Gate, that used to stand in a wasteland in the no-man’s land in front of the Berlin Wall is now flanked on either side by banks – the obvious oppression of the Wall has been replaced by the tyranny of finance capital.

 

The Linke-PDS programme is very progressive, campaigning for state intervention for jobs, with proper wages and higher taxes for the rich: a complete break with the common sense of neo-liberalism. They also have very high quality candidates. For example 34 year old Evrim Baba, a Kurdish woman born in Turkey, a Berlin city councillor and party spokesperson for women’s issues. Or Gesine Loetsche and Petra Pau: the two women who currently, and very effectively, represent the PDS in the current Bundestag – who have consistently opposed German military involvement in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and the cuts in the social wage. Currently the PDS have two MPs that they won under the first past the post stage of the last election, but they failed to make the 5% hurdle for the list representatives. This time round the party leaders hope to be elected, that will give the left greater weight in the national political arena.

 

The establishment is not able to ignore the Linke-PDS. Oskar Lafontaine is a very major figure, comparable to Tony Benn, and the impact of his joining the WASG (left dissident split from the SPD), and the WASG’s subsequent coalition with the PDS has had a significant impact, particularly as the WASG also has support of trade unionists, and this has helped the PDS to move on from its association with the former DDR. The newspapers cover the PDS as one of the major parties – and encouragingly when the right wing daily TagesZeiting asked the German equivalent of the CBI to rate the programmes of each of the 5 main parties, they gave no points to the Linke-PDS!

 

A significant part of the electorate will vote for a class struggle party, which perhaps explains why there have been a number of TV documentaries recently about the former DDR! A recent documentary about Lafontaine tried to contrast his former high profile at the glossy Partietag of the SPD, with his more recent appearances at the low profile meetings at WASG and PDS events, but this merely underlines that the left parties are made up of genuine rooted activists, with genuine commitment, not of careerists and spin doctors like the SPD.

 

But of course, this is a double edged sword. The DDR was a terrible dictatorship, but it offered economic security, an equitable welfare and health system, women's rights and comprehensive education. It also provided rent controlled accommodation. The promise of reunification that excited the East German population was the prospect of gaining the living standards of the west – instead they have lost much of the East German social wage, and bear the brunt of unemployment and poverty. The promises are now dust in their mouths.

 

Nor is the PDS simply a continuation of the old ruling SED. In the one party states of Eastern Europe, not only careerists would join the party, but also the community activists and socially aware, as party membership was the only way to achieve anything. The PDS, like for example the Munkas Part in Hungary, is a continuation of that part of the old party closest to the working class.

 

Much has been made of the truly terrible posters showing Gregor Gysi gazing at Lafontaine with love in his eyes. And they are everywhere! But there are also smaller posters on many lampposts pledging the PDS-Linke core values, of class loyalty, proper jobs, peace, social welfare and women's equality. Many of the posters feature the campaign quote from Oskar Lafontaine: “There is nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come”.

 

September 2005

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