Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Musical Chairs in Germany

from Dan Armstrong in Germany

The last leader of the German Social Democratic Party, SPD to proclaim his humble, working-class origins, was Gerhard Schroeder. The same Schroeder who embraced neo-liberal ideas, led a frontal attack on the well-developed system of social security, savagely cut unemployment and welfare payments to "improve incentives for capital to invest and modernise" and during this process caused half a million Social Democratic workers and trade unionists to leave the party in disgust and millions more voters to abandon their traditional voice.

One incidental effect was to strengthen the nascent left reformist party Die Linke which has since then competed with the SPD for votes. On Sunday 19th March, a new leader of the SPD was elected, unanimously, Martin Schulz. While party members are euphoric  and the party's popularity has shot up to equal that of Merkel's CDU, what differences, if any, will follow from Schulz's election as party chairman and candidate for Chancellor at the September General Election?

Until recently, the share of the vote for the SPD slumped year on year several percent so that by the end of 2016 the party could only command 19 and 20%.  After a good initial showing of 11-12%, the Linke has mainly stagnated over recent years, failing to appeal to the mass of workers and left voters, unable to produce political programmes which offered little more than demanding more teachers and opposing increases in military spending. It now receives around 6-7% in many regions, more in the east, but importantly has lost parliamentary seats in numerous states and seems to be having difficulties in the elections pending in industrial Northrhine Westfalia, hovering around the 5% minimum threshold vote.

For many years, the SPD has been in government coalition in Berlin as a junior partner with the CDU/CSU. Their record has not been entirely negative. Using their few ministries, the SPD pushed through a universal minimum wage, an affordable house-building programme and so on which have been well received by workers’ organisations.

Meanwhile the German economy has been slowly struggling out of the recession of 2008 and is now performing better than most capitalist countries in the EU. The budget cuts for public services been less than in other countries but have been enough to turn the deficit into a surplus, a rare event in the EU. Leaning on the growth, a whole number of unions in metal-working and logistics industries, for example, have pushed through long-overdue wage rises of 4-5%, each success emboldening further layers of the working class.

Growth of a new right wing
The massive influx of refugees from the Middle East was met with contradictory views. Big corporations and strategists of capitalists saw the influx as a welcome potential for meeting labour shortages and, once integrated, for refreshing pensions funds etc. Smaller localised firms plus many of the depressed badly-paid layers or unemployed fearful that their conditions could worsen, resented the influx. The anti-Euro and anti EU grouping of the AfD split several times and lined up with radical rightwing grouplets whose numbers were swelled through mass anti-immigrant demonstrations so that the AfD is now looking at entering many if not all regional parliaments with 10-12%, eclipsing the Linke and often the Greens too.

Decline of Merkel's Centre
Many of the capitalist, liberal and left forces on a continental scale became alarmed at this revival of protectionism and xenophobia although many wily conservatives understand the usefulness of an ethnically divided working class. At the same time, the rightwing groups conjured up the spectre of the "threat from the east".  The CDU's sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, departed from the liberal line of Merkel and demanded an imposition of numerical limits on immigrants. Such a demand is against the German constitution which guarantees refugees the right of admission. This split inside the dual conservative party led to the growth of the AfD and also to the decline Merkel's popular support as the Mother of the Nation. Previously running at over 40% of voters, the CDU/CSU began a steep decline down to the low 30 percent.  In addition, the number of non-voters increased from election to election.

At this juncture of events, the left organised resistance in the form of counter demonstrations and public protest, usually in grassroots and ad hoc groups which have been able to come together to stage impressive public showings of a refusal to accept the rightward drift. In half a dozen countries, popular movements with vague catalogues of mostly anti-capitalist aims sprang up. In Germany there had already been quite a long history of mass antifascist blockades whenever tiny neo Nazi groups marched or held rallies. Following the British exit from the EU and several ominous anti-democratic measures taken in eastern and central Europe, millions on the left asked themselves what the future may bring - time to resist or time to retreat? The American left displayed admirable and innovative forms of protest against the rightward slide under Trump. Perhaps it was these protests which encouraged the working class movement to seek a new course in the early months of 2017. Opinion polls began to reflect this shift and the SPD began to increase its support significantly.

The arrival of Martin Schulz
And so came the change bringing in Schulz. The leading figures in the SPD hardly differ from each other in any significant way. The term of office of President Gauck was to fortuitously expire in March 2017; the SPD, embedded in a government coalition with the CDU/CSU, put forward one of its party leaders, Steinmeyer, to stand for the post. Steinmeyer, previously foreign minister was a close accomplice of Gerhard Schroeder's reactionary economic and social policies and the rightwing coalition partners could hardly object to his becoming head of state. Thus began the game of musical chairs. Steinmeier moved from the Foreign Minister to the President, the chairman of the party and putative Chancellor candidate Sigmar Gabriel was chosen to become Foreign Minister in Steinmeyer's place.

The post of party chairman and combined with it the Chancellor candidate, became vacant. Gabriel had no chance of winning and stepped down. Opinions were canvassed and a candidature of Martin Schulz for these two posts was mooted and found favour with the establishment. Week by week his popularity was stoked until a campaign for "Martin", by now called only by his first name, was in full flow. Now at the Special Conference of the SPD, a massive delegate vote has taken place and Schulz received unanimous support. Schulz, unlike any possible rivals, does not belong to the established SPD leadership. He progressed through local politics and then entered the EU parliament and although he did support Chancellor Schroeder's neo-liberal policies, this was hardly noticed because his base was in Brussels.

For the moment Schulz is riding a wave of popularity in both the party and in the general public not seen since the time of Willy Brandt in the 1970s. The SPD support rose from a weak 20% to 25 then 30, now 33%, neck and neck with the once powerful CDU/CSU. In 1972 Brandt enthused young and old, workers and students, was elected as the first socialdemocratic Chancellor under the non-political slogan: "Willy waehlen - Vote for Willy"  and the SPD became the biggest fraction in parliament for the first time ever. Brandt campaigned for a controlled decline in heavy industry and cushioned those workforces with planned redundancies and rundowns. Workers participation and a more open attitude to Eastern Europe completed the reform image.

Similarly Schulz' supporters are personalising the SPD image asking for a vote for Martin. Schulz was elected with the simplest and non-specific platform: defence of the EU, more equality, justice and respect. He scattered in a few possible promises such as free education for all from the kindergarten to the university, extension of unemployment pay, and so on.

In the hope of a fresh breeze, there is a swelling enthusiasm for the party, at the time of writing a growth in membership of 13,000 (out of 450,000). There are still six months until the General Election in September 2017. Meanwhile several regional elections will deliver a running commentary on developments. In the summer, the SPD congress will decide on its electoral programme.  So far we have heard no policies to combat temporary employment, acute housing shortages in the big cities, measures to renew crumbling infrastructure, etc. An SPD president and chancellor would embolden the labour movement to press their demands.

There is no question: an SPD revival is underway. For the first time in a generation there is a realistic hope of renewing an SPD government. The tiny Linke meanwhile is still failing to attract more support; some sectarians in its ranks are already denouncing Schulz, saying that he is no different from previous SPD leaders and that he will betray. These tiny "purist" forces sound shrill in the face of groundswell of rank and file support for the traditional party of the workers' movement.

One of the main demands of the Schulz campaign is, for example, to combat inequality. It will be a simple matter to show and explain how to combat the gulf in incomes and how to redistribute them by intervention in the large firms. By denouncing the SPD now will surely demoralise many potential supporters as they will understand this as a call to give up the fight. The left can try to extend the minimal programme of the SPD and show the need for action against the forces of capital. It will be necessary to try to gather the forces for a new left wing in the SPD and bring them together with solid working class militants in the Linke.

The views above are those of the author.

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