“GroKo” Politics – No real change for Germany

BERLIN – Some have suggested the German “Word of the Year” should be “whistleblower” – in the escalating Denglish language here breezily called “Neu-Deutsch” (“New German”).

Chosen instead, however, is the word “GroKo”, shorthand for “Grosse Koalition,” a term used constantly during three months of wrangling between Germany’s two biggest parties, once seen as “irreconcilable foes,” but now together in a new government. (NB: in German, gross or grosse does not mean gross, it means big or grand!)

The wrangling between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) with its sister party in Bavaria, the even more rightwing Christian Social Union (CSU), had two main goals.

In its election campaign, the SPD had tried to sound leftish so as to keep or win back the votes of union members and at least some progressive voters. But now, to become part of a GroKo government, it had to tone down such sounds and soothe the fears of big biz bosses and their adherents in the CDU and in Bavaria, while trying not to let it look like collapse or capitulation.

Its second goal turned out to be easier: Who would get which Cabinet posts and rule the country for the next four years – unless or until GroKo splits apart sometime before 2017.

The Cabinet spoils were decided in an amicable way. Although the two Merkel parties had received 41.5 percent of the vote, the SPD only 25.7 percent, they agreed on six Social Democratic ministers, Chancellor Merkel and five others from the CDU and three from its allied CSU-Bavarians. (Nine are men, six are women.) The year began with the big question: how would these erstwhile foes get along (as they managed to do in two such GroKos in past decades)?

The SPD, in its election campaign, stressed two demands. One was to raise taxes on filthily wealthy individuals and companies and huge inheritance sums (which it and the Greens had themselves lowered some years ago when they led the government – but now said should be reversed.)

But alas, during the wrangling the SPD admitted, oh so reluctantly, that it must now make sacrifices for the sake of the GroKo – and agreed to forego  any and all such tax increases on the wealthy.

It remained steadfast on its other demand however, sticking valiantly to a measure long overdue in Germany, a minimum wage – of 8.50 euro an hour ($ 11.65). In the final coalition agreement the Merkel side conceded the point, and those trying to subsist on 5, 6 or 7 euros – or even less – often only with second jobs or relief aid from the government – gained new hope.

No laws have been passed as yet; it seems that the minimum will only gradually go into effect until the final date of January 1, 2017. But even before a law is passed some loud voices, especially in Bavaria, are demanding exceptions – for new employees, for working pensioners, students, seasonal workers, even for the long-time jobless. As yet, the SPD leaders are rejecting such exceptions as wedges aimed at weakening the whole measure. We must wait and see, pressuring them to stick to their guns. Of course, some cynics point out that 8.50 euro is not enough to live on decently even now and, since retirement pensions are based on earnings, it means a poverty-stricken retirement.

There was one interesting sideline. Manuela Schwesig, 39 (SPD), a relatively young lawmaker with the impressive title of Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth – but new to national level politics – proposed that young parents should work only 32 hours a week and have more time with their children. The difference in pay could be compensated by taxes. It took only a few hours for her fellow East German (they are the only two in the Cabinet) to quash such an idea, calling it only “her personal vision” for the future. Parents were already getting compensation for lost time with babies; there was no money for any such dreams!

Few changes were visible in public policies. The head of the SPD, stout, friendly Sigmar Gabriel (not quite as stout but seemingly more friendly than New Jersey’s Christie), now Minister for the Economy and Electric Power, made no new promises and looked less friendly outside Germany when he visited Athens and continued the same Merkel “austerity” policy imposed by powerful, wealthy Germany on the hard-hit countries of southern Europe.

Ignored weapons scandal

He fully ignored a concurrent scandal in Athens exposing both German weapons salesmen and Greek politicians who had illegally lined their very deep pockets while pushing wildly expensive armament sales, totally unnecessary and damaging for that unhappy, debt-ridden country but highly remunerative for a couple of German weapons-makers.

Armaments remained a key word for the GroKo New Year in the Ministry of Defense. But just imagine – a woman as Defense Minister! Ursula von der Leyen is the opposite of Sigmar Gabriel, not only because she is from the CDU but in appearance as well. Slender, blonde, soft-spoken and attractive, she was very popular as Family Minister in the last government and there are whispers that she might even succeed Merkel.

Almost immediately after her inauguration we were treated to skillful TV shots of her speaking in sincere, heart-warming tones to the German troops in Afghanistan. But it soon became very apparent: her policy was not a bit more attractive than that of her predecessor: a flexible, mobile volunteer army, with the most modern weapons, ready to fly at short notice to any corner of the globe “where German interests were threatened.” And, like her predecessor, she wanted drones! German troops, after all, must have the very best. She also promised that military service would be made more palatable. At least in the homeland it must be easier for the families of service members to be close and comfy, especially for the sake of the children! (Some critical voices were heard murmuring about children in less comfy countries, terrified – or killed – by German troops and circling drones! )

The GroKo parties dominate the German Bundestag with its 631 seats; in opposition are the Greens with 63 and the Left with 64 seats. Since debating time on bills and resolutions is determined by the number of seats held, the government parties can talk their heads off while deputies from the two small parties must talk quickly just to get a few words in edgewise. And even if they join together they don’t have the 25 percent of the seats needed to set up investigative committees or exercise other rights. They are busy contesting this arithmetical disadvantage – and the result is still open.

A key current theme is the European Union, whose parliament is up for election in late May in all 28 member countries. The left-wing parties’ caucus, ranging in a wide variety from the German Left (till now its largest member) from Communist parties in France or the Czech Republic to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, hopes to increase in number, now only 35 out of 736, worse even than the ratio in the Bundestag, especially with many more leftist delegates from Greece.

But in few countries is there much enthusiasm; skepticism abounds, about the European Parliament Union and the whole EU, so no voting turn-out can break only negative records. But the German Left party hopes to win more seats all the same and to strengthen the left-wing caucus, especially because extreme right wing parties, often dangerously close to fascist positions, plan on unity among Islamophobes, anti-Semites and Romany-killers from France, Hungary, Britain, Germany and others – all itching to flex their growing muscles and get out their bludgeons.

But there is disagreement within the German Left party on this question. The proposed election program for the May vote criticizes the EU as “neo-liberal, militarist and largely undemocratic.” This militant language, often coupled with a call for Germany to quit the NATO, has some Left party leaders worried, including Gregor Gysi, its best-known leader and top man of the party in the Bundestag.

There may be a quarrel on this issue at the February congress of the party in Hamburg, which will decide on the program and choose candidates for the May vote – on who to send to the European Parliament meeting alternately in Brussels, Belgium, and Strasbourg, France.

The wording may well be toned down. But the disagreement again reflects the chronic rift within the party between those who want to tone down some demands in hopes of joining with the SPD and the Greens and replacing the GroKo in 2017 (or earlier if it should sooner implode) and others who say that the Left should make no compromises on a basic issue: no sending German troops anywhere abroad, for this would sacrifice its basic position as the only true “party for peace” and dilute it into an only slightly more leftish version of the SPD – hence basically superfluous. It could well suffocate in such a three-way coalition!

Photo: Die Linke (the Left Party) has 64 seats in the German Bundestag, making it the next largest party behind the Gro Ko coalition parties (the Christian and Social Democrats). The Greens have 63 seats. 


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.