German Elections: Mixed Joy and Great Sorrow
BERLIN- State elections in eastern Germany on September 1 brought mixed joy to some and great sorrow to others.
With many, it was less joy than sighs of relief; neither Saxon nor Brandenburg voters gave the far-right, fascist-leaning Alternative for Germany (AfD) the Number One position it had hungered for.
In Saxony this was prevented by the rightist but not extremist Christian Democrat Union (CDU), which held on to the first place it has held there since German unification in 1990.
But its present coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) is no longer possible; to obtain the 50 % of parliamentary seats needed to form a government it must now form a trio. Since for it the AfD and the LINKE (Left) are taboo, a strange manège-a-trois seems inevitable: CDU, SPD and the Greens.
In Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, an AfD victory was also averted when the Social Democrats retained the first place it holds there since reunification. But its current duet with the greatly weakened LINKE (Left) must give way to a trio. The Greens are sure to be invited in as second violin. Will the LINKE be called in again or, now seen as out of tune, be replaced by the CDU, thus moving this state toward the right? Either decision is possible.
Thus, in both states, the leading parties held their lead and headed off the threat by the AfD. But in both states they were painfully weakened. In Saxony the poor Social Democrats, currently losing strength everywhere as they feverishly hunt for new national leaders, got the lowest state election vote in their post-war history—less than eight percent!
There could be no happy clinking of champagne glasses in either party headquarters.
As for the Greens, they could be quite satisfied. Until now they were very weak in East Germany. Now they improved their standing by three or four points and would now be represented in both states’ new governments, and soft, warm cabinet seats are far more comfortable than colder, harder chairs in the opposition. They also offer many more opportunities, both political and personal.
The AfD missed the victories it had aimed for but had no reason to complain: In Saxony it jumped from 9.7 % in 2014 to a new high of 23.5 %; in Brandenburg it soared from 9.7 % to a very strong 27.5 %. It thus became the biggest opposition party in both states; swift progress for a six-year-old. Those opposition benches did not feel so hard after all (especially if iron crosses and swastikas were tattooed under parliamentary apparel). The AfD could be more than happy; everyone else was well-advised to remain fearful or—far better—to keep alert.
But alas, hélas, ay, ach and oy vey: the party suffering most last Sunday was the LINKE. In Saxony, where it had long been the main opposition party, it sank from nearly 19 % to 10.4 %; it was similar in Brandenburg; until now junior coalition partner, it now dropped from 18.6 % in 2014 (and 28 % in 2004) to 10.7 % on Sunday. The fitting word is “devastating”!
What explains this? Many faithful old GDR leftists are dying out. Just as important, for years the LINKE was seen as a protest party, fighting hardest for working people in eastern Germany, who still justifiably feel they are treated as second-class citizens. Compared with western Germany, wages and conditions are worse and industry has never really recovered from its near total destruction when East Germany was “united” (many now say “colonized”) and West Germans took control in almost every sphere of society. They have largely kept it until today; entire regions are economically arid, empty, deprived of much needed but less profitable shops, cable, bus and rail connections.
In the 1990s the Party of Democratic Socialism (re-named the LINKE after it united with a West German party in 2007) often faced extreme suppression and discrimination. Especially in right-wing dominated Saxony the ruling CDU constantly equated the LINKE, the GDR and any socialist ideas or ideals with fascist “totalitarianism”. It still does. In many hard-hit towns such well-nurtured prejudices encouraged fascist elements, often in cahoots with Christian Democratic mayors, police and other authorities, to attack and sometimes prevent LINKE activities. The stench and threat of violence was often in the air—and often enough reality.
But in other areas, especially cities, the LINKE gained strength, often with 20 %, 25 % or more voters, and occasionally won political positions as mayor, county chair or Bundestag deputy in cities like Leipzig, Frankfurt (Oder), Potsdam, and even as minister president in the state of Thuringia. But this gradual achievement of a more respectable status created, ironically, a wholly different problem. Even a LINKE mayor or councilor felt it necessary to attract West German or foreign companies in order to get badly needed jobs (and taxes for schools, street lamps or other needs). But support for workers’ struggles for higher pay and better conditions was not exactly a strong inducement for such companies. Where should a LINKE mayor or member of a coalition put their stress? Many found it wise to promote “economic progress”- seeking more jobs and fewer enemies.
No matter what they decided on, the media was sure to distort it, viciously but cleverly! The result and a main factor in the Sunday defeats: many East Germans came to view the LINKE as part of the despised, even hated “establishment”—especially, as was mostly the case, when the LINKE appeared “moderate”! And, many thought, at least the AfD was no part of that “bunch up there”!
There are also some parallels with post-Civil War USA. The upper classes in North and South were able to funnel the resentment and bitterness of the “losers”, all white, into hatred for “the others”, the ex-slaves, thus misdirecting any opposition to new brutal controls in both North and South.
In East Germany, where so many rightly feel they were the losers, deluded, deprived, discriminated against by condescending “Wessies” who took over, the AfD has been able to misdirect about one quarter of the population into taking out their frustration against those who speak German with an accent, wear unusual clothes or believe in a constantly denounced Islam. “The ‘others’ were being favored—at our cost”, they cried.—Shades of Trump!
The severe defeat, like the miserable 5.5 % result in an earlier European Union election, demands vigorous re-thinking by the LINKE on policy, strategy and tactics.
I was not in Brandenburg or Saxony this past year and cannot criticize. But these problems of the LINKE are national in nature, indeed, often international. I see solutions in far more militant fights for working people’s rights. Though always an integral part of LINKE programs and electoral campaigns, I think that words in programs, on posters or declaimed in parliamentary speeches with TV sound bites should form only a background for highly visible shows of strength by “ordinary people”. Despite the malicious media, clever actions must be sought which bring people away from often overwhelming stress on multiple apps, video games and the like, and toward outdoor activities where they join hands and combine their heads and moving feet to advance their own cause. This should stress friendship and solidarity with immigrant groups and never neglect the emotional value of songs and the arts. Many a movement, from Marseilles to Santiago, from the Civil War to the civil rights struggle, has benefited greatly from good, fighting songs, in a variety of languages.
In the course of such actions it can be said, though never while looking down a wiseacre nose, that unaffordable housing costs, bad jobs, uncertain jobs, or no jobs, fears for the future of one’s offspring are closely connected with support for lives in dignity and peace on other continents.
A new home or better school is bound up with larger issues like armament costs, war and peace, and in the long run with a future goal of system-changing. That would mean (in East Germany for the second time) confiscating the immense wealth and power of a small clique of giants profiteers, from farm seed monopoly to pharmaceutics, from media control to missile construction, from guzzling cars to guzzling retail emperors, breaking their grip on all those cheated and exploited, from an Amazon warehouse in Berlin to a sweatshop in Bangla Desh. The hopes of seeing workshops run by those who work in them need to be kept alive or reawakened.
Would bold moves like these revive LINKE strength? Some on the left have given up on the LINKE, which was also riven by internal quarrels about a movement called “Aufstehen”, led by the great LINKE speaker Sahra Wagenknecht, which sadly weakened the party instead of strengthening it. But if the party should sink lower with the voters, or split and fall apart, there would be no loudly audible voice or vote in the Bundestag or the states to oppose wars in Afghanistan or Mali, to clearly oppose the fascist danger, to speak out for the rights of working people. The past offers bitter lessons.
If only it can learn from the disaster on September 1st and engage in militant, well-aimed, visible struggles at the grass roots level, the LINKE can be rescued before it is too late. In this powerful country, in these increasingly difficult times, this is desperately necessary! , and also make it urgently necessary to patch up the year’s nasty quarrel about the founding of the “Aufstehen” (Stand Up”) movement led by caucus co-chair Sahra Wagenknecht, which certainly hurt the party severely in the public eye.
[Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), and A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019).]