German federal election 2021: votes lost and re-found

Victor Grossman looks beyond Merkel’s party’s defeat to see how the left still lost out

When the German election result became known on 26 September, there were cheers and tears. But the outcome in Europe’s strongest economy was no humdrum matter. The end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year-long premiership added a special twist. So, who raised cheers and who cried tears?

Anyone who loved the Social Democrats (SPD) could be more than happy. After sagging lower and lower in recent years, almost seemingly heading towards oblivion, they swooped back upwards in a few months at an amazing speed and won the federal election, by a thin margin, entitling them to form the next government. They also won out in state elections in northern Mecklenburg- West Pomerania and the city-state of Berlin.

The defeat of Merkel’s Christian Democratic ‘Union’ (CDU) was not an occasion for mourning. It is a double party. The Bavarians have an independent wing, usually voting with the main party, asserting its right to some Cabinet seats when the Union rules, but at times asserting even more reactionary leanings than its bigger sibling. Currently, each wing is blaming the other for their joint election loss. The Bavarian Christian Social Union says the weak candidate – instead of their own man – was to blame while the others say the Bavarians sabotaged their joint candidate.

However, Merkel’s cautious balancing act between support for the bellicose policies of Washington towards Russia and China, with a giant military build-up, and her support for vital trade and diplomacy with both powers, is now in question. Her economics minister approved the Baltic gas pipeline from Russia, for example, while her defence minister preferred ever more armed manoeuvring at its borders. Her departure may contain a mixed message about German foreign policy.

What about the new lead actors on the federal stage, the SPD? Their miserable poll results last spring, down to 14% at one time, reflected their weakened links with the working people who had been their basis for more than a century. During their years of coalition government with the Greens (1998-2005) their record was disastrous, in their merciless treatment of the jobless and pensioners, for whom the retirement age was raised from 65 to 67 and, far worse, their break with the post-1945 refrain from any German deployment to foreign wars by sending planes to join in subduing Serbia. Their chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was smart enough to win re-election by keeping Germany out of the Iraq war in 2003, but domestic betrayals during the SPD’s junior partnership with Merkel lost him further working-class backing. But new promises won former voters back while it was largely the choice for the lesser of two evils which brought the SPD its slim victory in September.

But the number of seats it won, 206 (of 735) was far from enough to form a government. In former times one partner was sufficient for that. But with six parties dividing the Bundestag, this is only possible if the two biggest parties joined hands, as they have since 2013. But their Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats has run its course and is no longer feasible, forcing the SPD to find two partners to achieve a majority.

In Germany, parties are designated by colours. The CDU, still vaguely clerical, has black. The SPD sticks to red (though pink would be more appropriate). The smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP) has chosen yellow so Germany will now get a ‘traffic light coalition’ of red, green and yellow. While red and green like to be seen as left-of-centre, the FDP, traditionally secular and, therefore. labelled as ‘liberal’ is a strictly big business party. Its main objective is to promote capitalist interests without tax increases on the wealthy.

It seems clear that each party must give and take; toning down some demands, putting more pressure on other ones. The Greens may retreat on demands for 80mph speed limits even on autobahn stretches where 150mph or more is now allowed, or on cutting fossil fuel usage and gasoline motorcars by 2030, or postpone and forget other tougher demands. Maybe the SPD will ease up on its promises for working people, like the date of retirement with full pension, how much pension money should be invested in the stock market, how soon should minimum wages be raised from €9.60 €12 an hour.

But the FDP wants two demands to be ‘red lines’. One is protecting the well-to-do from higher taxes. The other is a tight restriction on making debts for social improvements, for children, the needy, those with precarious or no jobs, the elderly. How improvements promised by the SPD and the Greens can be realised without higher taxes on the wealthy or dipping into deficits is still a mystery. But the FDP, smallest of the three, seems to be the toughest because it knows it is critical to form the triangle.

Despite their differences, all three parties are united in wanting to preserve free enterprise and free market which for them equates with free democracy. But there are two other parties with players in the Bundestag. What about them? One is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), split from the start between its rabid pro-fascists and a more cultivated wing which is often embarrassed when the other wing betrays too clearly its genuine beliefs. Nationally, the party barely held on to a two-digit result (10.3%), down 2.3% from 2017, but the more open pro-fascists won first place in two East German states (Saxony 24.6%, Thuringia 24%). No other party dares to warm up to them as yet, but some politicians in the FDP and the Union flirt with the idea. Its strength in eastern Germany is related to the weakening of the smallest Bundestag party, The Left – Die Linke – created in 2007 by ‘old faithful’ remnants of the once dominant Socialist Unity Party in the East and militant trades unionists and leftists in West Germany.

Too few, even on the left, have ever realized the extent of devastation of East Germany, the German Democratic Republic in 1990, after so-called ‘reunification’ – really annexation or colonisation, even though it was approved by a demoralised and cleverly deceived majority (see Scottish Left Review November/December 2020).

Not only were nearly entire sectors of industry wrecked but in academia, journalism, public administration, the judicial system and government at nearly every level West Germans replaced East Germans and were given a special ‘bonus’ for their sacrifice. Countless towns and villages were emptied, especially of their younger inhabitants who, finding few jobs in the abandoned factories and occupied institutions, moved by the million to Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Scandinavia but especially West Germany. Far more girls and young women left than males; they could more easily fend for themselves. With a rejected orientation and limited hopes for the future, with GDR cultural centres and free sports facilities shut down, many hung around bars or the like and became easy prey for fascist recruiters and organisers from West Germany.

A few industrial centres picked up, like Leipzig, Dresden and around Berlin. Many never recovered. In all areas a deep bitterness about their status as ‘second class citizens’ developed – and against the ‘Wessies’. In the early years of ‘unified Germany’ many voters, especially those cherishing GDR memories, voted left, with results reaching 20-25%. Some left party leaders in the East were able to join in coalition governments, indeed, they have just joined with the SPD in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, they still head a Left-Green-SPD coalition in Thuringia and will continue the red-green-red coalition in Berlin. But it was just such participation in state government which, while achieving some social improvements, also limited party militancy and resistance to an establishment which many easterners distrusted and resented. To make matters worse, the media, almost 100% western-owned, led them to believe that the government was assisting refugees and immigrants with support they felt they should be receiving; thus fear, even hatred of foreigners, especially Muslims, was skilfully used to direct emotions and action, leading to the growth of the far right and the weakening of The Left, many of whose supporters, the faithful from GDR years, were dying off.

Such developments help explain the election tragedy, with The Left losing about two million votes and landing in last place with only 4.9%, hardly half the 9.2% it received in 2017 when it became the leading opposition party. It came close to completely losing its status in the Bundestag, which requires a minimum of 5% but was saved from total defeat by a special rule in Germany’s complex election rules.

When Germans vote they make two crosses on their ballots; first, for a candidate in their own district, second, for the party they prefer. The winner of the first votes gets a seat directly. The percentage obtained in the second vote determines how many seats a party receives, even if it fails to win a single seat directly. Who gets these seats is decided by a list chosen by each party before the election; the more crosses obtained in that second column, the more listed nominees will be seated. If 5% is not achieved nationally none on the list get in, but only those who won out in their own district do. It’s a complicated system but does guarantee smaller parties a voice – if they reach 5%.

Sadly, The Left missed this but was surprisingly saved by this special rule. If a party’s delegates win out in three or more of their own districts (with those first crosses) their parties are seated proportionally, just as if they had reached 5%. And The Left squeezed through, with two candidates winning seats in (East) Berlin and Leipzig. Its 4.9% will thus get it 39 seats, far less than the previous 69 but enough to form a caucus with all of its rights, rooms, staff jobs and privileges.

That miraculous rescue is of great importance. A powerful Germany is intent on economic and military expansion on a scale second only to the USA, Russia and China, and the endeavours of giants like Bayer-Monsanto, BASF, Daimler, Aldi, Krupp, Rheinmetall, the Deutsche Bank are supported by all parties except The Left. Only a few minor SPD voices have called for the removal of American nuclear bombs from German soil or opposed armed drones. As for the Greens, its leaders are loudest in demanding that Germany ‘stand up’ to Russia.

Why has The Left now taken such a beating? One reason was red-baiting by CSU, desperate to regain strength by warning that a SPD-Green-Left take-over would plunge Germany into reprising the (East) German Democratic Republic. But that was neither new nor successful. Then, too, COVID played a part, limiting efforts of smaller parties to reach voters. Far more injurious were the quarrels among The Left leaders, gladly played up in the mass media and often centering around the personality of Sahra Wagenknecht, the party’s finest orator and best- known media figure but who, step by step, has broken with her former leading positions in the party. Whether these were based on personal animosities and jealousies, ambition, or genuine strategy differences, they boiled up during the campaign and did serious damage to the party’s image.

But for many on the left, a main cause of defeat were the hopes of some party leaders to join with the SPD and Greens in a coalition government. As their gains in the polls made this seem more possible, The Left electioneering focused mostly against the CSU and FDP and avoided hurting Greens’ or SPD feelings, alluding only to mild differences which could surely be ironed out. But this meant compromises on basic questions, while SPD and Greens stuck to their guns – almost literally. Would The Left still oppose NATO and demand a peaceful European collective including Russia? Did it still reject deploying Bundeswehr troops on foreign missions? If so, it was insisted, it could not be included in any government coalition. Despite The Left‘s programme, some candidates and leaders weakened. Consequently, the splits were very public and their effect very dispiriting.

Defecting to the GDR in 1952, Victor Grossman writes the ‘Berlin Bulletins’ and his autobiographies are ‘Crossing the River, A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany’ (2003) and ‘A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee’ (2019).