Although readers in the USA and elsewhere are watching voting results there with baited breath, it is worth taking a look at Germany’s elections on March 13th – far from pleasant but very important all the same, and not only for Germany! Only three of the sixteen states voted ; the national election is not due until 2017. But if the present trends continue – watch out!
American readers, with two big parties and only a few small splinters, may find it hard to follow six parties here. That number of rivals makes it almost impossible for any one party to gain a full majority in the legislature (and it’s the same on a national basis). This means that two or three parties must agree to govern together in a coalition, splitting the number of cabinet seats according to strength, with the strongest party taking the top post. Nationally, Angela Merkel and the two “Christian” sister parties (one in Bavaria is separate) have joined with their old rival Social Democrats (SPD), leaving Greens and the LINKE (left) in opposition. This can be very different on the state level, and on Sunday it became more different and difficult than ever, and mostly worse.
Each of the three elections had a different winner. In two states the Greens barely squeaked past the five percent hurdle needed to get any seats in a legislature. But in more prosperous Baden-Wurttemberg, with Daimler-Benz and its glamorous Mercedes, untouched (as yet) by emission scandals, the Green minister-president (like a US governor) triumphed again! On the right edge of his party, which is generally moving rightward, he remains very popular with his gruff, jovial manner. Somehow he has style! All other older parties suffered (except for the reborn Free Democrats).
As for the once proud SPD, it failed more miserably than ever before in two states, getting only between 10 and 13 percent. But one single result was a bright spot in their gloom. In far western Rhineland-Palatinate, known for wonderful vineyards and less wonderful US military bases, they won a neck-and-neck race between two very adept women. The very attractive, very nasty Christian Democrat, who attacked her own party leader Merkel on the refugee question, lost out to her very popular rival, who will now govern – but may have to invite her rival to join her as a junior partner.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, owing to her welcome to the waves of immigrants, have been speedily slithering down-hill; briefly, even her rule seemed to be threatened. That seems to be past, but her party suffered tough defeats in the states mentioned above. As a mild consolation, they kept their long-lasting lead in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt, though their previous partners, the SPD, lost so heavily that it will be hard to paste together 50 % of the seats and form a new coalition.
With all those losses, who won? Undeniably, it was the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party founded in 2013, whose position resembles that of Donald Trump, except that its head, attractive young Frauke Petry, spreads her verbal poison cleverly without his bluster. And she wants no frontier wall but police shooting at “illegal immigrants”! Her party got two-digit results in all three states, 15 and 13 percent in the west and a frightening 24 % in eastern Saxony-Anhalt. It now has seats in four eastern and four western legislatures. Merkel’s pleas for a humanitarian welcome for the refugees, as dictated by German Basic Law, thus reached only part of the population and she and her government have been retreating week by week, but for many this was not mean enough. Nationalism and fear, infected with large doses of racism, were fueled in the media by coded or openly hostile reports on every case where a young male “foreigner” was caught in a crime or misdemeanor, with more horror stories invented and spread per Internet, often brutally fascist in tone. Less spectacular was the fact that the great majority of refugees, often mothers and fathers with children, had done nothing worse than wait on long lines for some kind of basic support – and hoped to escape mass cot or mattress accommodation in gyms and airplane hangars. Indeed, most violence, increasingly, was directed against them.
But hoarse calls of “We are the people” echoed those oh, so libertarian slogans of 1989 against the Berlin Wall and meaning now (and then, too): “We are the GERMAN people”. More and more signs read “Throw Merkel Out” or “Merkel resign!” because of her refugee welcome. Faces and looks on the faces of those in such marches recalled many a photo or film of 80 years ago.
But the big tragedy, in the eyes of your Berlin Bulletin author, was for the LINKE, the Left party, which lost everywhere. It not only failed to take the 5% hurdle in the two western states (with a disappointing 2.8 % and 2.9 %) but crashed from a high-ranking second place in the eastern state of Saxony–Anhalt to a crushing 16.3 result, a loss of seven points and now far behind the AfD with its menacing 24.2 %. And its main candidate had once spoken of becoming minister-president there!
The refusal by speakers of the LINKE to depart from humane, friendly treatment of the refugees – in unusual concurrence with Merkel – was admirable and expectable but won no votes. What was missing, it seemed to me, was a sharp rejection of the government policies which helped cause the refugee flight: support of USA policies in Syria and Turkey, sales of weapons worth billions to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the Emirates. And even more, aggressive responses to the fears of so many people, especially in eastern Germany, about no jobs or rotten ones at weird hours and low wages, about the mean, demeaning treatment of all who lose their jobs, against higher rents and gentrification, rising rates of electricity, medical care, and transportation. The AfD built on such fears; the LINKE took good positions, but was all too rarely seen on the streets in active, vigorous protest. It often aimed at coalitions with Greens and SPD, in Saxony-Anhalt and elsewhere. As a result, many saw it as just one more of the corrupt old parties.
The LINKE might even dare to insist that the whole rotten system was more and more a “1% vs. the 99 %” set-up – and needed more than just Band-Aid improvements. Rebelliousness in a vicious direction has won too many AfD converts; rebelliousness in the other direction might also win angry protesters. This fight-back spirit has been demonstrated, sometimes with more success, sometimes with less, but always admirably, by protesters in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, also very courageously by Jeff Corbyn in Britain – and in many ways by Bernie Sanders. Their vigor and courage, also their originality and even humor, are as badly needed here as in those places. Germany has long been a powerful force in Europe, usually in a bad way. But its potential on the left, with a large, usually devoted membership in the LINKE party, and still with many delegates in the Bundestag to support (not replace) action in the streets, could play a valuable role – which is now needed more urgently than ever!