Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Interview with a Left Party activist posted by MeadersJonas, who lives in Frankfurt and blogs on German politics at A New Morning, has been involved in the Electoral Alternative (WASG) since it was formed out of the anti-cuts movement last year. The WASG joined forces with the former Communists in the PDS to form the Left Party, the success of which has created a huge stir in Germany. I thought it'd be interesting to ask him how things were going over there.
What are the main issues in the election?
Social issues are at the centre of this election. The most important single issue is unemployment. A few months ago, unemployment hit the symbolic border of 5 million for the first time since 1945. Schröder's neoliberal policies have completely failed to reduce unemployment but instead succeeded in drastically widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. The response of all mainstream parties to the failure of neoliberalism is to push for even harsher neoliberal policies. This has left open a vast space on the left that can be filled by the Left Party.
It is striking how the mere emergence of the Left Party has led to a significant shift to the left in German politics. There is no more talk of the "Neue Mitte" - Schröder's equivalent to Blairs' Third Way rhethoric. After drastically reducing taxes for top earners, Schröder now demands a "rich people's tax". Similarly, the Greens are rebranding themselves as "the real left party".
What factors have broken people from the SPD?
The social question is absolutely central in breaking people from the SPD. Schröder has pursued the most aggressive attack on the welfare state since the Second World War. His policy of social cuts, especially the Agenda 2010 and the Hartz IV unemployment reforms combined with tax cuts for the rich and corporations have led to a situation where many of those who once constituted the heart of the SPD feel betrayed. There is a deep feeling among large sections of the working class that the SPD no longer represents their interests. Many of those now campaigning for the left party constituted the backbone of the SPD for over 30 years.
What led to the merger between the WASG and PDS? Why did the PDS decide to merge, and was it an easy process?
The trigger for the alliance between WASG and PDS was Schröder's annoncement of re-elections on the eve of the SPD's historic defeat in traditionally SPD-dominated North Rhine and Westphalia, Germany's largest federal state, in May 2005. The SPD's drastic defeat was very cleary the result of its neoliberal policies, which led to mounting opposition to Schröder within the SPD.
Schröder's decision to go for re-elections reflected two interests. First, German capital pushed for re-elections since Schröder seemed too week to implement further neoliberal programs because of the growing opposition within and outside the SPD (particularly around WASG).
Secondly, Schröder hoped to silence dissenting voices within the SPD in the election campaign while strangling the new left at its birth since the WASG with a few thousand members would have clearly been unable to mount a serious election campaign (and a merger with the PDS within such an extremely short time period seemed unrealistic).
Then, most significantly, the former finance ministre Oskar Lafontaine resigned from the SPD and announced that he would stand as a candidate for an electoral alliance of WASG and PDS. The vision of a united left challenging Schröder's SPD led to an enormous excitement on the left. An immense pressure built up that actually forced WASG and PDS to form an alliance.
Because German law forbids electoral alliances WASG candidates are now standing on the lists of the PDS, which, in order to correspond to the situation of the joint candidature gave itself the new name "Left Party". After the elections a new party will be formed.
The alliance between WASG and Left Party was by no means an easy process. The WASG was also formed partially in opposition to the PDS, who pushed through social cuts in the federal states where they are part of the government (e.g. in Berlin). In the end the pressure of those neither organised within the WASG nor the PDS was decisive. Both parties felt that there was no way of explaining to the voters why two left wing parties with a very similar program were competeing against each other in the elctions (and probably both failing with regard to the German electoral system's five percent hurdle).
There have been some reports in the UK of the Lafontaine's allegedly "racist" rhetoric, in particular his use of the word "Fremdarbeiter".
Could you tell us what happened?
Refering to migrant workers Lafontaine used the term "Fremdarbeiter", "foreign workers". Though all the other parties used this term on their websites, its allegedly Nazi connotations were used to start a smear campaign depicting Lafontaine as "the new Haider". However, the point is that the context of Lafontaine's speech was completely ignored. Lafontaine didn't blame low-paid migrant workers but on the contrary he attacked businesses exploiting them by paying them less than German workers and demanded a minimum wage to protect all workers.
In fact, the emergence of the Left Party completely wrecked the strategy of the Nazi parties to capitalize on the protest vote. Before the united left emerged, it seemed that the Nazi parties, who had forged an alliance for the first time, could win seats in the Bundestag. With the left offering a credible anti-neoliberal alternative, the Nazis have been completely marginalized.
After the Left Party's launch, it has consistently polled around 7-8%.
Do you think this provides a base for further growth? In particular, how
can the Left Party grow in the west?
The Left Party is polling about 30 percent in the east and about 5 percent in the west. The strong showing in the east reflects the former PDS' strong anchorage there. To grow in the west it will be important to break away even larger sections of the trade union movement from the SPD. Though the SPD's support among the working class is weakened, the party is still very influential.
How has the Left Party impacted on other smaller parties? Many in the UK see the German Green Party as quite a radical, left-wing organisation. Has the Left Party's growth affected the Greens at all?
Though the Greens are part of the government the neoliberal policies pursued had very little impact on their scope of support. This reflects the fact that the electorate the Greens are appealing to is overwhelmingly middle class. They were not hit hard by the reforms of the government – a decisive difference to the SPD's working class electorate. Therefore it's not surprising that the Greens have only slightly been affected by the emergence of the Left Party.
What has been your personal experience of campaigning?
On the street there is definitely excitement about the new Left Party. People join at street stalls. In fact, the WASG is growing quickly. In May 2005 the WASG had about 5000 members - now it has over 10000. In working class areas the Left Party has most of its support. You meet people telling you that they have voted SPD for the last 50 years but won't do so now because they feel that for the first time there is a credible left alternative to vote for. There are lots of migrants telling us that their whole community will vote for us. I have also met many people who haven't voted for years but say that they will now.
At the same time the situation is polarised. There is a massive media campaign against the Left Party. For example, the chief editor of a large German news magazine called Focus argued that the Left Party wanted to construct "a new North Korea in the middle of Europe". However, it is striking that, probably similarly to the experience of the French left in the referendum on the European constitution, the effects of the media campaign seem to have been rather limited.
What are your predictions for the election, and for the Left Party in
I think we might end up with a CDU-SPD-coalition. The conservative CDU is losing support as it annonuced that it will push through even harsher social cuts. Of course, Angela Merkel prefers a CDU-liberal democrats coalition, but it looks as if they won't win a majority. Many SPD ministers have already declared their support for a CDU-SPD coalition. This is not surprising as the programs of CDU and SPD differ only slightly. All major reforms of the past years were already passed in parliament by votes of both the SPD and the CDU.
Regarding the Left Party it seems to be likely that we will win about 8 per cent of the vote. After the elections a new left party will be formed which will hopefully involve much larger sections of the trade union movement, the anti-globalization movement, etc. This process might take some time.
There are important contradictions between PDS and WASG. For example many within the PDS argue that the Left Party should compromise with the SPD in order to prevent even worse policies. Contrary, the WASG maintains that being part of govenment pursuing social cuts weakens the resistance against neoliberal policies. To grow further, the Left Party will have to focus on building resistance on the street against the neoliberal attacks that are sure to follow the elections – regardless of who will govern after September 18th.