Germany: Left goes in, right goes out – or does it?

BERLIN — The state of North Rhine-Westphalia in the valleys of the Rhine and Ruhr is far and away the most populous German state, with 18 million people. Once extremely prosperous, much of it is now in the Rust Belt category. But it still has key political importance, and was ruled for the past five years by the same two right-wing parties as those ruling the whole nation, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

In Sunday’s election, both of them took a beating. The ruling Christian Democrats, whose local leader, Ruettgers, had hopes of following Angela Merkel at the top spot in Berlin, or even pushing her out, can now forget about it. His home state handed him and his party their worst defeat ever, a loss of over 10 percentage points.

And yet, to the end, it was a nip and tuck battle between his party and its main rivals, the Social Democrats. The latter also lost voters, though not nearly so many (2.4 percent), and came out second best in the rivalry, not quite catching up to the Christian Democrats. The final result was tight, 34.6 to 34.5 percent.

The difference between their two smaller partners was much clearer. While the other big business party, the Free Democrats, could only tread water, ending up with 6.7 percent, the Greens were the big winners of the day, almost doubling their number, with over 12 percent of the voters. They were understandably in a jubilant mood.

But what counts when forming a government in German politics (as in most of Europe) is not the number of voters but the number of seats in the legislature, where a majority is needed to form a stable cabinet. In this case that means getting 91 or more of the 181 state seats. And when all the counts came in during the night, the Social Democrats and their favorite partners, the Greens, ended up with just 90, ten more than their two old rivals, but still one seat short of victory.

The reason neither pair got over half the seats was because of the new addition, the Left. It made its debut in the state by squeezing past the required percentage with 5.6 points and thus getting eleven seats in the legislature. A wagon with four wheels can usually be steered; one with five wheels is far more skittish.

For the Social Democrats to form a government they must either join up with their traditional rivals, the Christian Democrats, and fight over top positions, a very unpleasant and uncertain prospect, or else accept not only the Greens as partners but the Left as well, just to reach that magic number of 91. That too is anathema, however, especially since national party leaders in Berlin fear any similar opening for the Left on a national scale in 2013 and could try to prevent it. Some local Social Democrats are also so fierce in their rejection of this “formerly Communist” party, their term for the Left, that they might even rebel at any such three party solution and desert to the other side – as happened two years ago in Hesse (perhaps with some desirable temptations as incentives for the deserters).

To make matters even more wobbly, the Left in this state is allegedly the very farthest to the left in all the party. It has not only horrified many good citizens by calling for the legalization of marijuana, but also supported the nationalization of banks and major utility giants. The media like to call its leaders ” chaotic” and have unhappily been supported in such attacks by some leaders of the Left in other states, who went so far as to say it is “incapable of holding government posts,” statements seen by others as suicidal backbiting.

Thus, the future in North Rhine-Westphalia is still undecided. If the Social Democrats emerge as leaders, in one way or another, this would cost the central government its present majority in the national Upper House, or Bundesrat, where each state is represented. Without this majority, Angela Merkel’s government may find it very difficult to get laws approved. In the past, of course, all four older parties, including the Greens and the Social Democrats, joined in supporting a nasty collection of reactionary measures and in approving military engagement in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and other areas. Currently, more social or leftish sounds from their headquarters, which undoubtedly helped them in Sunday’s election, have only been audible since they were forced into opposition. The Left was almost always alone in its consistent, continuous pressure on matters of domestic and foreign affairs.

Many questions remain as to what compromises, if any, the Left will make to get into the state government in Dusseldorf or, in 2013, into the national government in Berlin. Such matters will almost certainly be debated, perhaps hotly, at its party congress next week in the Baltic Sea port of Rostock. For a variety of reasons, therefore, the coming days and weeks may be very stormy.

Photo: A full moon shines over Dusseldorf, the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. (Dirk Hartung/


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.