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Germany: Elections and the political crisis of the bourgeoisie

Martin Suchanek, GAM Infomail 1163, Berlin, 20.09.2021

With less than a week before Germany’s general elections, the latest polls, from September 16, show the SPD, with 26 percent, ahead of the CDU/CSU on 22 percent and the Greens on 15 percent. The more right wing AfD and the liberal FPD are both on 11 percent and the Left Party, with 6 percent, looks sure to enter the Bundestag, but far behind.

In recent weeks, the election campaign has been marked by a peculiar contrast. It could now end with a surprising victory for the SPD that has been languishing around 15 percent in the polls for years but the campaign itself has been empty of any real content. The briefest look at the election posters shows this; the SPD promises „Competence for Germany“ and „Respect for you“. The Greens‘ top candidate, Annalena Baerbock, praises „our country“, which, „can do a lot if you let it“. The CDU/CSU promises „security“ in uncertain times, while the FDP’s Christian Lindner simply declares, „There has never been so much to do“.

After 16 years of Angela Merkel, who will lead the next government and what coalition will be formed are both wide open. In fact, three of the four parties mentioned above, the SPD, CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP could enter a coalition government after the elections. Although a coalition between the SPD and the Greens and the Left Party is mathematically possible, it is very unlikely, despite persistent efforts by the Left Party leadership. Both the SPD and the Greens are aiming for a coalition with the FDP if Olaf Scholz, SPD, wins the election, in order to signal reliability and stability to German capital. Should the CDU/CSU somehow prove the polls wrong and become the largest group in the Bundestag, they, too, would probably invite the FPD and the Greens into coalition or even the SPD.

Theoretically, it would also be possible for the CDU/CSU to join an SPD-led cabinet, but this would almost certainly exacerbate the deep crisis in the CDU/CSU parties and is therefore unlikely.

Why have the polls turned?

What has undoubtedly been remarkable has been the volatility in the polls since the beginning of 2021. At first, they pointed to a straight duel between the CDU/CSU and the Greens over who would eventually form a government. But then the Greens fell behind and the Union parties looked like the sure winners. The only open question was whether Markus Söder, CSU, or Armin Laschet, CDU, would succeed Merkel.

With Olaf Scholz, the SPD sent a grand coalitionist from the right wing of the party into the race, appearing to guarantee a continuation of its permanent crisis and slow decline. For a long time, he seemed certain to come in third, virtually a pseudo-candidate whose party was about to suffer its worst result ever. But, in contrast to the SPD, its rivals engaged in an open battle over who would be the top candidate. While the CDU and CSU more or less openly damaged Laschet, the Green Party’s top candidate, Annalena Baerbock, was undermined by a hostile media campaign very early on.

All this certainly contributed to turning the polls. The SPD essentially benefited from the weaknesses of the others, and now has a real chance of being the strongest party on September 26 with Scholz becoming chancellor. The Greens have meanwhile effectively dropped out of this race, so the election is coming to a head as a duel between Scholz and Laschet. In this, the SPD man has the advantage that even parts of the CDU electorate and the ruling class consider him the better, or at least the more presentable, chancellor. However, such personal factors are ultimately secondary and do not get to the heart of the matter.

Political-strategic crisis

The rapid changes in the polls rather express a growing political instability and crisis of the parties that provided the governments in the Federal Republic and formed the pillars of the established bourgeois parliamentary system for decades.

The decisive and primary factor here is the crisis of the CDU/CSU. Even if Laschet were to finish ahead of Scholz, making the CDU/CSU the strongest party in the Bundestag and leading the next government, its results are still likely to be catastrophic. In 2017, it had its second worst result ever, only 1949 was worse, losing 8.6 percent compared to 2012, and gaining only 32.9 percent. This time the losses could be on a similar scale.

The decline of the Union parties corresponds to a fragmentation of the bourgeois camp, that is, all those parties that historically do not originate from the workers‘ movement. The rise of the Greens, who will probably achieve their best result and consolidate themselves as the third political force, is complemented by the FDP and the AfD, both of which are certain to receive more than 10 percent of the vote. This shows how the CDU/CSU are less and less able to fulfil their historic role as the main political representatives of the middle classes. For decades, the CDU/CSU were able to integrate various smaller, openly bourgeois forces, which had competed with each other in the Weimar Republic, into one party, thus ensuring unity in the bourgeois camp. The particular interests of different petty-bourgeois strata, and even parts of the working class, could be combined in the interest of the whole of capital.

Conflict lines

This is less and less possible because the CDU/CSU alliance is less and less able to formulate a policy that articulates the interests of society’s total capital as a reasonably consistent strategy. Rather, the Union parties are riddled with a series of political contradictions. Their whole policy, for example, vacillates between a „Green Deal“ with state investment programmes on the one hand, and a neo-liberal, ‚purely‘ free-market course on the other. The Green Deal, of course, has little or nothing to do with the preservation of the natural foundations of life, but is merely an „ecological“ programme to renew the material basis and competitiveness of industrial capital. The other wing, however, relies on an essentially neoliberal policy, since this would best serve the interests of financial investors, leaving the market to solve ecological problems.

The two sides represent different factions of monopoly and finance capital and different ideas about the future shape of the relationship between the classes. One wing relies on corporatism and social partnership and thus a certain integration of the working class via the trade union apparatus and the works councils. To the other, that is, the FDP and the Friedrich Merz wing in the CDU, this appears to be fundamentally wrong.

Finally, the various political forces do not have a common strategy for resolving the EU crisis and the transatlantic conflict, which has not disappeared under Biden, but only changed its form. Both issues are inextricably linked to the relationship with China and Russia, another disputed aspect of foreign policy strategy.

The only thing that is clear is that, although decisive changes are needed, there is no clear strategy for German capital as such. Indeed, over different issues the camps partly overlap each other.

However, while they clash within the CDU/CSU, this is much less true of the Greens and the FDP, which have a relatively high degree of unity.

To a certain extent, this also applies to the SPD. Like the Greens, it stands for the Green New Deal, but it is better able to sell its policy of social cushioning and consideration to industrial workers, who rightly fear for their jobs in a massive restructuring of export capital in the metal, electrical and chemical industries. This is why the Social Democrats were able to overtake the Greens in the polls.

Nobody should expect too many social benefits from Olaf Scholz and his SPD. The latest increase in Hartz IV welfare, just 3 Euro/month, shows the price the social democracy puts on the much-invoked „social justice“. The poorest of the poor will be fobbed off so cheaply in the future as well.

Under a federal government led by either Scholz or Laschet, the social and economic costs for the Corona programmes, for the national debt, for the „reform“ of the EU, for the „ecological renewal“, for armaments, the military and further foreign deployments are to be paid by the wage-earners. The only question is whether the ruling class should also pay a „share“ or, according to the model of the CDU/CSU and the FDP, get off scot-free as „high achievers“. That the ruling class will not be asked to pay too much will be ensured by enough forces in any new coalition and by the inevitable pressure of German capital.

The economic situation may bring some room for individual wage increases and social cushioning, but that is only the carrot to the stick of mass layoffs and restructuring in industry or in new austerity programmes in the public sector. In addition, rising inflation will lead to a further deterioration of the situation of wage earners. As far as the fight against the Corona pandemic is concerned, basically all four parties rely on a mixture of vaccination and infection of the unvaccinated, in other words the so-called herd immunity. It is no longer a question of stopping the spread of the virus, but only of keeping the burden on the health system and the mortality rates within „acceptable“ limits.

Internal problems of a future government

The strategic line of German capitalism will continue to be controversial and vacillating, because government itself will be composed of different currents, which themselves by no means have a coherent, clear „concept for the future“. At the same time, the next government will launch or continue important attacks, the various coalitions will differ at most in the extent to which they continue to involve the trade union leaderships and the works councils in the large corporations „in partnership“ in the struggle for world market shares.

According to the established norms of class collaboration, a share of this should fall to the labour aristocracy but, against the background of falling profit rates and ever tougher world market competition, this share is visibly diminishing. For many, after successful, socially cushioned structural change, it already consists only in the „privilege“ of being allowed to continue selling their own labour power, under significantly worse conditions, of course.

The sore point for German imperialism, however, is its foreign policy and military weakness. A future government, whether under Scholz or Laschet, must strive to cut the Gordian knot of the EU crisis and the continued lagging behind in competition with the US and China. Whether it will succeed is quite doubtful. The sword with which to cut it has yet to be forged.

For this reason alone, we can expect greater instability. If the incoming government fails to find a real solution to this strategic crisis, we can expect a further regrouping in the bourgeois camp. The racist and right-wing populist AfD is regularly beset by internal conflicts, but it has stabilised at over 10 percent of the vote. In the next period, too, it will be able to attract disappointed and angry smaller capitals, petty bourgeois and backward workers through a mixture of racist demagogy and promises of freedom for „honest“ small businessmen.

In the current elections, the AfD, because of its anti-EU stance, is not an option as a coalition partner for either the CDU/CSU or the FDP. But this can change in the next legislative period, perhaps because the crisis of the EU makes other options necessary for capital, or as a possible partner against the resistance of the working class or social movements against coming attacks, for example, on environment or rents. In addition, the Union parties and the FDP will seek to expand their options for government to balance the options of the SPD and the Greens, who can also draw on the Left Party as a threat.

Basically, however, the elections will be about the alternative between two possible future directions for German imperialism. The SPD and the Greens stand for a socially and ecologically cushioned modernisation. The FDP and the right wing of the CDU/CSU are backing a new version of neo-liberalism. Part of the CDU/CSU is either in between or closer to the SPD, the Greens and the EU Commission.

How the German bourgeoisie resolves this crisis does not, of course, ultimately depend on the outcome of the elections and the negotiations for a new government. Essentially, the question will be decided in the struggle, both with other blocs and states over the future of the EU and the world order, and between the classes. In this, the various bourgeois strategies must prove their worth.

On a purely governmental level, we will immediately have to deal with a coalition of the two policies – not unlike the situation in the EU. This is immediately reinforced by the federal system of the Federal Republic, which would still give the parliamentary opposition a „say“ over the government on important legislation. In any case, unlike in previous periods, this would be a fragile, unstable cabinet.

Role of trade unions and SPD

In principle, such a situation also offers opportunities for the working class. But the shift to the right in recent decades, which itself stems from defeats (Hartz laws, EU diktat on Greece, the slide to the right after the so-called refugee crisis), led to a situation in which it was not the left but the political right that profited from the crisis.

This was and is massively exacerbated by the policies of the SPD and the trade unions – especially the bureaucracy’s shoulder-to-shoulder social partnership during the crisis and the pandemic. The large DGB unions effectively refrained from collective bargaining. The largest social mobilisations came from petty-bourgeois-led movements against racism and especially against the government’s environmental policies, which contributed to the fact that these, as well as the extra-parliamentary left, are strongly influenced by petty-bourgeois ideologies.

Even if there was a limited reversal of the trend in 2021, with important industrial disputes on the railways and in the health sector, or through campaigns against rising rents, this should not obscure the fact that these only affect individual sectors and partial struggles. In the large companies, a peace organised from above with the help of the trade unions and works councils prevails, which is paid for by the employees with concessions at all levels and job losses.

And the Left Party?

The Left Party has not been able to make political capital out of this crisis of the SPD. Rather, it is itself part of the problem, the political crisis of the working class. This is also expressed, but not only, in the elections. Compared to 2017, it will probably lose around 2-3 percent this year. That is still enough to get into the Bundestag. But the question is, why is it languishing around 6 percent?

The decisive factor is probably this: The Left Party failed to present itself as a credible alternative to the government, and that means above all to the social-partnership course of the SPD and the trade-union leaders. In Thuringia, Berlin and Bremen, as is well known, it is involved in the state governments – and thus even the difference between its left-reformist programme and the policies of the SPD and the Greens is blurred.

On the other hand, the Left Party has certainly changed. For years it has had around 60,000 members, but whereas at the time of the merger of the PDS and the WASG a clear majority came from East Germany, today it is only a minority. The party has also rejuvenated itself and has stronger roots among unionised wage-earners than the former PDS ever had. It has actually become a more „classical“ bourgeois workers‘ party, a smaller reformist sister of the SPD. It currently organises the more politically conscious sections of the working class and plays an important, if not leading, role in significant labour struggles, such as the current strike at Berlin hospitals, the campaign to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co. or the mobilisations against the tightened police law in North Rhine-Westphalia.

That the party has become the political expression of these forces and movements, despite its reformist politics and programme, expresses its anchoring in more progressive and militant sections of the wage-earners and forms the basis for critically supporting it in the coming elections. In order to wage a successful struggle against the coming attacks, winning these sections of the working class to a united front is absolutely necessary, both because of their own social weight and as a lever to win over broader layers of the class.

The reaction of the leadership of the Left Party to a possible mathematical majority in the coming Bundestag, however, illustrates why electoral support has to be very critical. In recent weeks, the party’s leadership has not concentrated on presenting itself as a left-wing, militant alternative to all pro-imperialist forces and possible bourgeois coalitions. Rather, it has focused on participation in government. To this end, at the beginning of September, the leaders of the party and the parliamentary group published, without discussion in the party executive, an immediate programme for a Red-Green-Red government, in which all essential differences with the SPD and the Greens (especially on NATO and foreign policy) were avoided. Compared to the clearly more left-wing election programme, this amounts to a capitulation.

The Left Party not only fails to recognise that a government with the Greens would only be a government with another, modern, openly bourgeois party; it also fails to recognise that a Red-Green-Red government with an SPD under Scholz would only be possible on a programme as the supposedly better administrator of German capital.

A „new social, ecological policy“, a „change of social course“, however, would certainly not be forthcoming. On the contrary, the Left Party would at best be the red fig leaf for a Green (New) Deal in the interests of capital.

Available, but ignored, the party leadership is playing coalition games to which it was never invited. It is high time the left in the Left Party stood up against this mixture of opportunism, capitulation and political misjudgement and publicly rejected the immediate programme and the course towards red-green-red, and at least committed the „tops“ to their own election programme.

After the election

The fight will really only begin after the elections. Scholz, Laschet, Baerbock and Lindner will be looking for massive social attacks after September 26. But, in the process, they will also become embroiled in protracted coalition negotiations. And that can be useful for us if we react decisively ourselves and don’t wait for a government to be formed.

Building a mass movement against forcing the costs of the crisis and the pandemic onto the wage-earners is the order of the day. To this end, we propose a nationwide action conference to discuss the situation after the elections and decide on a plan of action and mobilisation against the expected attacks.

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