Compromise and coalitions prompt soul-searching for German left

BERLIN – Soul-searching is often on the agenda for people who long for peace, better lives for everyone, and for the rescue of our planet. November 8th in the USA is one case in point. Germany also demands soul-searching – and not only around the issue of its current refugee question. On the national level, stout, commonly self-assured Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats (SPD), is less popular than ever and so is his party, now down to 22 percent in the polls.

As usual before elections, due in a year, the SPD has been sounding more leftish than usual, trying to set itself off from the coalition government in which it is the junior partner. This is not all too convincing and Gabriel’s party throne is very shaky.

As for the two “Christian” parties – the Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) – a very un-Christian jealousy has dented hopes for family harmony. The Bavarian sister party, led by big, sarcastically smiling Horst Seehofer, is cashing in on media-fostered animosity toward immigrants (aided by some recent crimes) to demand tougher rules for them – and ways to get rid of as many as possible.

Merkel, long the admired ” Mutti” (“Mama”) of the nation, has led her cohorts in the same direction, though never harshly enough for German nationalists and ugly racists. Her popularity ratings are now below the halfway mark. Who can she ally with next year after the all-German vote? Will the Social Democrats again buckle under and back another “grand coalition”? Will the Greens move further rightward? Who knows?

State elections next month

In just four weeks, two states will open their polling booths. In northeastern Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, luckily shortened informally to “Meck-Pom”, no big dramas are expected.

That is not the case in the city-state of Berlin, where every second lantern pole is adorned with party posters. At present, the Social Democrats are senior partners in the state government; the Christian Democrats (CDU) are juniors. But, as on the national level, their coalition gets chillier and chillier the closer elections approach, and the SPD sounds ever more progressive and open to popular demands.

One is less gentrification. Affordable apartments are an urgent need for the many refugees while people, young and old, move here from all over Germany and far beyond. Berlin, pleasant and desirable in many ways, is less expensive than Paris, London or other capitals – but tougher and tougher for less prosperous local people.

The elections are complicated. The vicious Alternative for Germany (AfD), based on anti-foreigner feelings, will now make it into the local parliament and all twelve borough councils, a frightening perspective. The other parties will have nothing to do with them (as yet, anyway). Since the Free Democrats and Pirates have scant hope of meeting the 5 percent requirement for the parliament, four main parties will compete.

The necessary mating this will require to reach a ruling 50 percent majority recalls the old riddle about how to cross a river with a wolf, a goat, and a head of cabbage. Who with whom? The SPD, polling best in Berlin with 23 percent, doesn’t want to keep on with the Christian Democrats (CDU), now standing at just 18 percent. And the sum of those numbers would no longer win half the seats anyway.

The CDU boss, still responsible for “inner security” in the cabinet, tried desperately to regain lost ground by sending 300 military-clad cops to “protect” a few construction workers while breaking up and evicting a hippy-type bar, “people’s canteen,” and club in the backyard of a “squatters” building. Several thousand residents of an area recalling one-time Greenwich Village or parts of San Francisco saw that as a provocation and responded angrily, though at first peacefully.

But when 1800 cops moved in, also from other states, a pitched battle ensued, soon involving many from masked “black bloc” groups, always ready for trouble, and bottles, firecrackers, and cobblestones were met by tear gas, water, and batons. By nightfall, 123 of the police had been injured, most not seriously, 86 people were arrested, and a number of elegant cars had been set on fire. Then, three weeks later, a judge made an amazing decision: the squatters were there rightfully. The alleged owner, a shady anonymous speculator from England (or was it the Russian mafia?) had no genuine rights, neither had the cops or the eviction, which took place without even talking with the young people. The CDU boss, despite an eternally righteous smile, had taken a public beating. So had his party.

But other issues were at stake. The Greens, less right-wing here than in some parts of Germany, were next in line as partners for the Social Democrats. But their current 19 percent still wouldn’t bring in the needed 50 percent of the seats. This, logically, would point to a three-way coalition; by taking the Die Linke (The Left Party) on board with its 14 to 18 percent of the vote, the seating arithmetic would add up. Indeed, this now seems quite likely.

Past coalition experiences haunt Die Linke

Here, however, is where soul-searching sets in. Some leaders of Die Linke look forward to just such a chance to join in the city government once again after five years out in the cold. But others, the “ideological” wing, “principle-sticklers”, “incorrigible leftists” or whatever – the “left in the Left” – warn of possible consequences.

In all three states where Die Linke joined the SPD as junior partner, it lost out. In Meck-Pom, after two terms, its poll percentage had dropped from 24.4 percent to 16.4 . In Brandenburg, it dropped from 28 percent to 18 – and is still descending. And in Berlin, its ten years as junior partner saw its vote share drop from 22.6 percent to 11. The party never regained many of its lost voters.

The explanation is simple. Once it is part of the government, Die Linke must abandon its role as a fighting opposition and join in weak or unpopular decisions by its stronger senior partner. All this while the media gives the SPD credit for every joint success but blames Die Linke for every failure and ignores its achievements (like democratizing the education system).

Should the party try this again, gaining a few probably uncomfortable cabinet seats but losing more voters and much of its remaining militancy, since it would be bound up in preserving the status quo? Or should it say no? Not an easy decision.

In recent elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where its main election goal was to win a chance to enter such a triple, status quo coalition, it lost miserably – not just its cabinet chances but most of its credibility.

An ever greater cause for soul-searching emerges when previewing the national scene after next year’s election. There, too, with a racist AfD in the Bundestag, perhaps in double digits but boycotted by all, the chances of any single party achieving the 50 percent of the seats needed to form a government will have become tougher than ever.

Some Die Linke party leaders are already offering the SPD and Greens the same three-way coalition nationally which is now possible in the city-state of Berlin. One of the most spirited in this direction is Bodo Ramelow, who has headed just such a triumvirate in the state of Thuringia since December 2014.

Military policy a source of tension at the national level

But on the national scale, foreign and military policy come into play, where Die Linke’s distinguishing feature has always been an absolute refusal to endorse any use of Germany’s forces outside its borders. It has called for a withdrawal from NATO, or at least its basic military component, and voted against sending German Bundeswehr troops or ships to any of the 16 conflicts or conflict regions where, since the demise of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), they have taken part – and are often still engaged. It proudly calls itself the only peace party in the Bundestag. Many see this as its basic justification, its raison d’être.

But the Social Democrats insist that such a position totally disqualifies Die Linke for membership in a joint government. The Left, they insist, has to “agree without any reservations that every national government must accept the international responsibilities of Germany such as those in the framework of NATO.” And caucus leader Thomas Oppermann adds this bit of advice: “If the Linke party wants to govern then it cannot nominate such radical representatives for the Bundestag. A coalition with the SPD is only possible with reliable representatives.”

But Die Linke Minister-President Ramelow, whose state government has taken no progressive actions of note since he became its head, offers a solution: “I advise my party not to rule out the possibility of a coalition because of the NATO question… That does not mean that we must become enthusiastic supporters of NATO… Joining a three-party coalition means learning that subjects which cannot be decided upon because of differing positions can occasionally be put aside.”

These less than ambiguous words came at the same time when NATO, at a grand meeting in Warsaw, decided on a frightening policy which calls to mind the provocative police invasion of the house in Berlin – but this time with countless tanks, artillery and aircraft, some with atomic possibilities, right up to the Russian border and into the Black Sea.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wants more billions for the Bundeswehr forces – the planned 225 Leopard tanks and 190 Boxer tanks are no longer sufficient. The armament industries rejoice, but many in the world recoil – and some recall the warning words of U.S. Senator Kilgore in 1945 about the continuing plans of German industry and finance for a new try at economic and military expansion.

Joining a German government next year on SPD terms, if it became possible, would mean giving up the principle of opposition to this course – and dismissing as meaningless the basic party goal of changing society. In a way, the issues recall similar questions in Britain, the USA, and elsewhere.

The immediate answer, in view of on-going threats of conflict in so many regions, is to accept no further plans for further buttressing NATO and Bundeswehr, not even just “a bit grudgingly”, but instead to fight to rebuild a resounding peace movement. Plans for a hopefully impressive demonstration on October 8th are moving ahead, hopefully repairing nasty recent splits. Such a movement, like that which seems to be holding up any trade agreement like TPP, must convey the underlying will of most Germans for a Europe and a world in peace. Soul-searching, always important, must rapidly lead to vigorous action.

Photo: Delegates cast a vote during a session of the third party congress of Die Linke in Dresden in June 2013. | Die Linke


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.