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eltdown for German Social Democracy

John Valtin



Germany's governing party, the SPD, is in free fall. An ongoing programme of
welfare cuts, market liberalisation and corporate tax breaks - presented in
today's Orwellian vocabulary as "reforms"- have led to a devastating defeat
for Social Democracy at the polls. In the June 13th European Parliamentary
election traditional SPD voters abstained in huge numbers or switched to
other parties. In its worst result in the history of the Federal Republic,
chancellor Gerhard Schröder's party took just 21.4 % of what was a low
turnout. 

To understand the scale of the defeat we need some comparisons. The SPD had
been narrowly re-elected in the 2002 general election on an anti-war vote
(the Conservative opposition was backing Busch's Iraq war plans). That was
the last nation-wide test of popularity. Since then the party has, in
absolute terms, lost some 13 million voters (two thirds of its support). A
comparison with the last Euro election (1999) would be fairer, but here,
too, the SPD have fallen badly: 2.8 million fewer votes (over 9 %). And a
breakdown by social class shows the biggest losses are among workers (minus
13 %) - a trend compounded by the haemorrhaging of the card-carrying
membership.

The outcome was not expressed as a ringing endorsement for the
"centre-right" CDU/CSU opposition. Their share of 44 % is 4 % down on 1999,
with 1.7 million fewer votes. Interestingly, they performed particularly
badly among younger voters. Working people in Germans generally sense that
the medicine offered by the Conservatives and their "free-liberal" FDP
side-kicks will be even more unpalatable than Schröder's pro-business
"Agenda 2010". 

The campaigns of the major parties again resembled soap powder advertising.
Reflecting the core interests of German capitalism at the heart of the EU,
none are Eurosceptical in the British Tory sense. Their programmes all offer
vague visions of a strong Europe with varying emphasis on how "social" and
how robust (militarised) the EU should be, although the Right, with their
traditional petty bourgeois core support, are stronger on "safeguarding
national identity" and keeping refugees out. But in any case, the opinion
surveys show that voters generally treated the election as a chance to
respond to politics made in Berlin rather than influence Brussels.
 
So who were the winners on June 13th? The simple answer is the
left-reformist PDS in eastern Germany and the Greens in the west. The Party
of Democratic Socialism, the reformed successors the old GDR's ruling
Communists, managed 6.1 % nation-wide, but this figure conceals a strong
revival in its eastern heartland (25 %), where the SPD were pushed into
third place. In the state of Brandenburg they even overtook the CDU. Despite
executing swingeing cuts where they share power locally with the SPD, the
PDS clearly gained from the widespread social discontent in a region where
unemployment reaches 20 % in places. Their stance on US aggression is also a
vote winner, though this is combined with illusions in the UN as an
antidote. 

The Greens were comfortably returned to the European Parliament with nearly
12 % of the national vote, their best-ever result. This may seem
paradoxical, since as the junior party in the governing coalition they, too,
might have "taken a kicking" for the neo-liberal dismantling of Germany's
welfare system. They are, however, a thoroughly middle-class formation whose
supporters among the urban academic and professional strata are not yet in
the front line of the assault on living standards. For left-liberal opinion
the Greens can still, it seems, embody the promise of a better cleaner
Europe. The Greens have come a long way down the road of real politik since
holding office. The very last vestiges of the old naive reformist zeal
disappeared years ago when the party followed their leader, Foreign Minister
Joschka Fischer, down the road of war in Yugoslavia. "Black-green"
coalitions (CDU-Greens) are now on the agenda.

Various local and state elections ran simultaneously. In eastern Germany the
state of Thuringia saw the CDU just hang on to power and the PDS (26 %)
trounce the SPD (14.5%). And as a footnote, the performance of the far right
should also be mentioned. The neo-nazi upsurge of the mid-1990s has left
fascist groups fairly well entrenched in parts of the east. Alarmingly, in
the wake of the EU's eastern enlargement the various far-right lists (mainly
NPD and Republikaner) have been able to build on fears of even more
competition for scarce jobs in the economically blighted state of Saxony. In
the Sächsische Schweiz border region, the NPD netted 50 seats on 23 local
councils. In one rural district a neo-Nazi candidate actually received 26 %
of the turnout! However, in national electoral terms the far-right vote was
puny: their combined vote at the European election rose, but only to around
3 %. 

On an optimistic note, the northern city of Rostock in the east saw the
election of the first Trotskyist councillor in Germany for decades. The SAV
(German section of the London-based CWI), would - like their Militant
Tendency counterparts in Britain - appear to have made some headway by
"de-entering" from the SPD in a period when "reform" means "roll-back".

This major electoral defeat of Social Democracy and the high level of
abstentionism among the German electorate reflects a profound gap that has
emerged between official politics and the mass of the population. Only 9 %
of the potential electorate could be bothered to vote for the SPD. While the
party political theatre carries on regardless, a "creeping crisis of
legitimacy" (Die Zeit) simmers behind the scenes. As hopes fade in
politicians' ability to deliver improvements, the focus of action will
increasingly shift to the workplace and the street. 

What, then, is the chancellor's response to this nadir of Social Democracy?
The "Genosse der Bosse" (the bosses' comrade) pledges to push on regardless
- even if this may mean losing power after a renewed heavy defeat in the
next state election (North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2005). The employers'
associations are cheering on the government. BDI President Rogowski tells
Schröder, "We're relying on you!" As the welfare state is dismantled, living
standards cut and wealth redistributed upwards, the message from the media
is loud and clear: there's no alternative. But it's a message that's not
getting through.

 

July 2004

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