Forming a German government: Bumper cars for the Bundestag?

BERLIN -If you’ve ever been on a bumper car at an amusement park, you can get an idea of current German politics. Here, too, the noise is terrific and everyone zooms back and forth, round and round, clashing with everybody else. And, similarly, there may be no real winner — except perhaps the man at the cash register.

Christian Democrats (CDU)

The main car to watch is steered by Angela Merkel. Her Christian Democrats (CDU) barely missed out on the expected majority in the Bundestag, so a partner is needed in order to rule. Its former partner, the right-wing Free Democratic Party, was pushed off the floor, and a possible replacement, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), even further right, didn’t quite make it past the entrance. After a failed attempt with the Greens, the CDU must now share the driving wheel with its rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD). The bargaining, after seemingly endless agreements and disagreements, is supposed to be concluded this week.

A main CDU problem is that, despite all instincts to drive to the right, if it is to preserve popular admiration for Merkel it must remain nationalistically tough towards less prosperous European neighbors to the South yet sound moderate and not too anti-social domestically. But it is being shoved rightward by its increasingly independent sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) of wealthy, reactionary Bavaria, whose leader, Horst Seehofer, a smiling giant of a man, recently won huge support in his state elections and within his party — and is using this to gain a stronger grip on the coalition drivers’ wheel. The issues he stresses, pensions for mothers and toll charges for non-German drivers on the autobahn, are less important than the pressure on the larger sister to buck any wishes of the SPD to head a bit leftward.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

The other key participant in the tangle is the SPD, still mildly celebrating its hundred and fifty year history as “workers’ party” (or more recently “people’s party”) but rubbing the wounds from measly 25.7 percent returns in the September elections. Stout chairman Sigmar Gabriel and secretary-general Andrea Nahles, both seen as left-wingers in an almost forgotten past, were punished at the recent party congress; Nahles got only two-thirds of the vote, the worst result of her career.

The leaders are currently working almost around the clock in their overriding hope for an agreement with Merkel and the Bavarian Seehofer. For them a great deal is at stake. If a new “grand coalition” government is formed they will get fine cabinet posts, in Gabriel’s case the job of vice-chancellor next to Merkel. But if the attempt breaks down they might end up in the party dustbin. And a very worrisome short circuit still threatens. Due to grass roots opposition, the party agreed to have a mail-in referendum of all its 473,000 party members on the coalition, pro or con, and to abide by its decision. And there have been many skeptical voices, despite all of Gabriel’s passionate appeals, some stormy, some almost tearful.

To gain approval from the membership, the SPD cannot seem to be giving up principles it has been espousing, at least in words, since it became part of the opposition in 2009, after an earlier, truly disastrous four-year attempt at a Grand Coalition. Why, many are asking, should a similar attempt be any better for the party this time?

The leaders insist that many principles have been maintained. The CDU seems to have agreed, though vaguely, to the SPD demand (swiped originally from the LEFT) for a minimum wage of 8.50 euro per hour in all Germany, even in the eastern states where wages average 80 percent or less of those in west Germany.

They may also have achieved their goal of permitting immigrants, especially from Turkey, to maintain their original citizenship when becoming German citizens, in other words to have two passports, an issue close to the hearts of most Turkish voters. They claim that the CDU has agreed to allot more money to education, to bridges, roads and public buildings, although this will depend on key budget decisions, very much up in the air.

But they gave up on a key election campaign demand for higher taxes on millionaires, billionaires and the wealthiest corporations. And they OK’d the fuzziest of wording on the immensely unpopular drone weapons. “The matter must be investigated during the next four years,” they say, while the CDU Defense Ministry presses eagerly ahead and hopes to use the unmanned killer planes both abroad and, as indicated by a few menacing words, domestically as well.

Indeed, while up to the last moment there are squabbles on various domestic policy items, there seems to be full agreement on military policy, which means specialized military units on a German, European Union and NATO basis for deployment anywhere in the world.

The SPD membership, strongest among union members, is less interested in (or disturbed by) foreign policy matters but rather worried about jobs and social matters. It is a very open question whether they will obey their leaders and approve the coalition.

There are only two real alternatives.

The idea of a coalition of the CDU-CSU with the Greens was given up weeks ago as non-negotiable. But now the important state of Hesse is upsetting the apple cart — or bumper car, if I stay with my metaphor. It also had a state election, also with a shaky conclusion. It seemed that there, too, a grand coalition – CDU-SPD – would emerge. But all of a sudden directions changed. The Christian Democrats of Hesse, furthest right in Germany (aside from the separate Bavarian sister party), decided on a deal with the Greens. Except for a few feeble, failed efforts in the past, this was something new. It meant that the Greens, once seen as a left-wing party, have abandoned most of their former principles and veered sharply to the right, at least in Hesse (where they gained their first political status in 1985 as partners of the SPD). More important, it is a hint that if the SPD membership does vote against the coalition plans, the CDU and the Greens might try again, copying Hesse, and join together on a national basis.

The other alternative is for the bargainers to call it quits and have a new election. But this is feared by most parties, not only because of the bother and expense but because the SPD might cut an even more dismal figure than before. And who can tell anyway how the voters will respond?

There is one other alternative, theoretically.

If the SPD and the Greens broke their long-standing taboo on a three-way coalition with the LEFT party they would also achieve – barely – the required Bundestag majority. For the first time there have been calls to reconsider the taboo, but most refer only to 2017. The reasons given for such caveats? The refusal of the LEFT party to change its stand on two issues: It must reject everything the East German GDR stood for (basically a socialist take-over of big banks and concerns) and it must drop objections to sending German soldiers into battle around the world.

Some in the LEFT party insist that this would mean giving up all principles, hopes and dreams, and lead it down the same sad ramp of compromise (or betrayal, some say) taken over the years by the SPD and the Greens. Others in the party say that compromises must be made if the party is to achieve importance nationally. As it is, this little party, with somewhat over 20 percent approval in the east and about 6 percent in the West, adding up to 9 percent in all, is now the leading opposition party in a Bundestag that, if the grand coalition succeeds, will be dominated by 80 percent on the government side. Like the other parties, it is subject to pushes in more than one direction. It remains to be seen how it fights back – and holds together.

Following the money

Ah yes, the cash register. A news item tells us “In the middle of the coalition negotiations the CDU and the SPD received financial gifts from the chemical concern Evonik… Last Friday the SPD received 90,000 euro, the CDU 70,000. …The organization Lobby Control criticized the gifts, given at a crucial moment, when coalition negotiations are making key decisions about energy policy…” Lobby Control called on the SPD and CDU to demonstrate “their independence regarding the lobby of energy-intensive and coal-driven energy industrialists.”

An Evonik spokesperson rejected the question. “There is no reason to criticize companies for assuming their social responsibility and supporting democratic parties. In any case, we do this every year for the CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens…. We do not believe that politicians now negotiating — like Chancellor Merkel or SPD-Chairman Gabriel — can be bought.”

Once again, it seems, the poor LEFT party has been kept out of the playing. Is that bumpy game really being played on a level field?

Image: Deutscher Bundestag



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.