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The Melting Centre

Eckhard Jesse

 

 Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, German party politics is changing profoundly, but in an opposite direction to what had been predicted: the East is coming to the West and changing it. The rise of the Left Party and the crisis of the two traditional “people’s parties” are creating an intriguing electoral arithmetic that raises fundamental questions for the core values of German democratic politics.  

Wohin steuert Deutschland? Bundestagswahl 2009. Ein Blick hinter die Kulissen [Whither Germany? The 2009 Federal Elections. A Look behind the Scenes], by Matthias Machnig and Joachim Raschke, Hoffmann und Campe, 260 pp, €20.60, ISBN: 978-3455501131.

 

The events of autumn 1989 were revolutionary in character. The freedom then achieved was followed by national unification in 1990. Both these events were revolutionary and together represented the first successful peaceful revolution in German history. Twenty years later, the united Germany is a largely stable and successful entity despite the fact that the party political landscape has changed and the two traditional broadly based “People’s Parties” – the CDU/CSU and the SPD (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party respectively) – are in crisis.

 

Twentieth century German history can be read as a succession of breaches: in 1918 Imperial Germany – the Kaiserreich – collapsed and the first German democracy – the Weimar Republic – was born; in 1933 the National Socialists came to power in more of a “transfer of power” than a “seizure of power”; and in 1945 Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” disappeared from the political scene after twelve years of bloody dictatorship. In autumn 1989 the East German communist regime ruled over by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) was overthrown. The upheaval in the German Democratic Republic was as surprising when it came as it proved abrupt, and occurred in the wake of growing resistance in several “fraternal states” against the authority of the Soviet Union from the early 1980s, led by events in Poland, followed by a gradual change of course in the Soviet Union itself in the second half of the decade under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. While the Soviet change of course was driven by the looming threat of economic disaster, as well as calculations concerning military security policy, it ultimately led to a loosening of political controls. Increasing internal liberalisation resulted in a decline in discipline in the satellite states of Eastern Europe.

 

“Socialism in East German colours” – as SED general secretary Erich Honecker described the German Democratic Republic (DDR) at the end of 1988 – never developed any power of attraction. On the contrary, its economically decaying system was on the point of bankruptcy. The dismantling by Hungary of its posts along the Austrian frontier in May 1989 effectively created an open border (the so-called “green border”) between the two countries, even if Hungary initially tried to prevent DDR citizens from leaving its territory. On September 11th, it finally relented and allowed the refugees to leave for West Germany through Austria. Agreements reached behind the scenes also led to East Germans who had taken refuge in the West German embassies in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia being released to the freedom of the West. This mass flight led to a wave of demonstrations among those who had remained behind in the DDR. The cry “We want out!” began to be drowned out by voices calling “We want to stay!” These twin developments – the mass flight and the mass demonstrations – disabled the regime which, headed by the aged and ailing Honecker, rapidly began to crumble. As Horst Sindermann, then chairman of the East German parliament, the Volkskammer, later described it: “We had everything planned; we were prepared for all ‑ everything except, that is, hearts and prayers.”

 

The fortieth anniversary of the founding of the DDR on October 7th was celebrated in the tried and trusted way with a massive military parade. But the celebrations exposed the atmosphere of unreality now gripping the state. While those on the “inside” participated in the pompous celebrations, those on the “outside” were taking part in peaceful mass demonstrations. The resulting escalation in public discontent was tangible. On October 9th, around 70,000 people demonstrated in Leipzig – which subsequently became known as the “City of Heroes” – calling for “peaceful dialogue”. When the security forces held back it was clear that the military was not going to be sent in to crush the peaceful protest movement. After the overthrow of Honecker on October 18th, Egon Krenz, who had replaced him, sought to put himself at the head of the reform movement and thus to blunt its impact. But he had no credibility with the people. The powerless now took power as the previously mighty were reduced to powerlessness.

 

Finally, on November 9th, the Berlin Wall was opened for the same reason as it had originally been built on August 13th, 1961: to secure those in power. But what had succeeded in 1961 (the ensuing stabilisation of the DDR) failed in 1989, and the state lost the last remnants of its stability. “Insanity” was the word generally applied to the previously unimaginable events that now unfolded. This rather lame term to describe the huge, though nonviolent, changes under way rapidly became a household term in the DDR.

 

Soon after the Wall opened, the nature of the mass demonstrations began to change: the slogan “We are the People” changed into “We are one People”. For most East German citizens there could be no question of a “new experiment” or any other type of “Third Way”. Following the first – and last – democratic elections to the Volkskammer on March 18th, 1990, which resulted in a clear victory for the CDU-dominated Alliance for Germany, the drift towards unification gained momentum. This was driven not by any actions by “the West”, but by events in “the East”. The Inter-State Treaty, the Election Agreement and the Unification Agreement came one after the other in rapid succession. The democratised DDR became part of the Federal Republic. On October 3rd, 1990, barely a year after the state’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Germany was reunited and the artificial state construct of the DDR was at an end.

 

Last year’s federal elections, held on September 27th, 2009, were the sixth all-German elections to take place since unification. The victory of the CDU/CSU and the FDP (liberals) and the extent of the defeat of the SPD put all other outcomes of the election into the shade. Compared to the previous general election, held in 2005, support for the CDU fell 1.4 percentage points, while that for the FDP rose 4.8 points. The SPD vote fell 11.2 points, while the Left Party gained 3.2 and the Greens/Bündnis 90 gained 2.6. The total CDU/CSU vote (33.8 per cent) was its second worst result since the Second World War – its worst ever result had been in the first federal elections, held in 1949 when the emerging party system was still in flux. The SPD vote (23 per cent) was its worst since the war. No party had ever experienced such a fall in support in any federal election. In five of the sixteen federal states the two main parties combined won less than 50 per cent of the vote and only in two did they achieve over 60 per cent. This decline in support for the two traditional “people’s parties” represents a major challenge to the party political system.

 

Shortly before the 2009 federal elections, a collection of essays edited by Matthias Machnig and Joachim Raschke was published. Called Whither Germany? The 2009 Federal Election: A Look behind the Scenes (Wohin steuert Deutschland? Bundestagswahl 2009. Ein Blick hinter die Kulissen), it consists of contributions by over thirty respected authors – politicians and commentators – analysing major political themes in the run-up to the election. These are grouped under the headings “Leadership”, “Strategy”, “Reform”, “Programmes”, “Parties”, “Coalitions” and “Communication”. No fewer than seventeen elections took place in Germany during what became known as “Super Election Year” 2009: European elections, a federal general election, a presidential election, six federal state elections and eight local authority elections. Since reunification the German Federal Republic has witnessed a far greater growth of smaller parties than ever before in its history, with political polarisation on the increase.

 

But this situation requires some differentiation. The extreme right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) is militantly opposed to the constitutional democracy of the state. This has been the case particularly since the transformation of the party in the late 1990s under the leadership of Udo Voigt and since the introduction of his offensive “three/four pillar strategy” caused such a public furore. This strategy consists of the “battle for minds”, the “battle for the streets”, the “battle for the voters” and the “battle for organised public opinion”. The previously rather traditional conservative German nationalism of the party was thus replaced by a militant activist profile with strong elements of class struggle, reflected in its denunciation of capitalism, globalisation and the US. Racism and ethnic nationalism are inherent in the party’s ideology and it espouses an extreme hard right agenda. But the NPD remains a far weaker force than Die Linke, the Left Party, created from a merger of the successor to the East German SED and leftist elements in West Germany.

 

While the Left Party has broken with the politics of the old East German communist party, rejecting for example the old SED’s “democratic centralism”, it has yet to embrace unambiguously the principles of constitutional democracy. This hasn’t however prevented it from joining coalition governments at federal state level. Extremist strands within the party remain palpable – its unilinear view of history, its sympathy for the Cuban dictatorship, its canonisation of Rosa Luxemburg, an exponent of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the formal representation in its structures of Trotskyists and other hard-line groupings. Sahra Wagenknecht, spokesperson of the Communist Platform, was elected to the national executive at the party’s first national conference in May 2008. Since its formation through an amalgamation of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) with the Alternative Work and Social Justice List, (WASG) in 2007, the party has represented a kind of soft left extremism. The WASG had been founded in 2004 as a movement of disillusioned left-wing social democrats, diverse local left-wing groups and trade unionists, predominantly in West Germany.

 

Whither Germany? has little to say about the extreme right because its marginal role and electoral weakness mean that it represents no immediate threat to the democratic state. On the other hand it comments extensively on the Left Party, and rightly so. In the book, which appeared before the general election, journalist Brigitte Fehrle predicted that the party would make major gains in “super election year” 2009, and so it came to pass. But she believed its electoral advances would have no repercussions at government level because the SPD had categorically ruled out entering into a coalition with it. Gregor Gysi, the Left Party’s most popular politician, states that for the first time since 1949 a party now exists to the left of the SPD that enjoys wide public acceptance. He also states that the SPD’s programme of labour market reform and modernisation known as “Agenda 2010” and its “illegal wars under international law” make it unacceptable to the Left Party as a coalition partner. He refuses to concede that it is the SPD that refuses to enter a coalition at federal level with the Left Party rather than the other way around. Gero Neugebauer, a Berlin political scientist, describes in detail the various strands in what is a far from uniform party, as the current row surrounding its general secretary, Dietmar Bartsch, shows. He stresses the continued important role of Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD chairman and (briefly) minister for finance under Gerhard Schröder until resigning to later go on to co-found and lead the Left Party. Neugebauer believes that a decision by the SPD in favour of coalition with the Left Party at federal level would be a highly dangerous strategy for the party. On the other hand, not one of the essays in the book refers to the extremist tendencies of the Left Party.

 

In the 2009 federal elections the Left Party achieved 11.9 per cent of the vote (8.3 per cent in the West and 28.5 per cent in the East) while support for the mainstream “people’s parties” continued to fall. In the two federal elections of the 1970s, in which over 90 per cent of the electorate voted, the combined vote of the CDU and SPD was over 90 per cent. This dropped in the federal elections of the 1980s to just over 80 per cent following the emergence of the Greens, and in the 1990s to a little over 70 per cent. This latter drop in support was not due solely to the emergence of the PDS as a new force. In the 2005 federal elections the two large parties combined failed to achieve even 70 per cent, and electoral participation fell to 77.7 per cent, its lowest since the war. The 2009 federal elections saw this trend continue, with the two large parties achieving just 56.8 per cent combined – less than in the first federal elections of 1949. This meant that, including invalid votes and non-voters, not even 40 per cent of the electorate had voted for them. The comparable figure in the 1980s was 80 per cent. Little illustrates better than these figures the crisis in which the “people’s parties” find themselves. Since the federal election of 2002 alone, they have lost over 20 per cent of their electoral support.

 

These electoral losses, however, are relatively mild compared with the dramatic fall in popular identification with parties, electoral participation and party membership that have accompanied them, all of which have accelerated since reunification. When the electoral performance of the two large parties is compared East and West, the better results in the West ‑ with the exception of the SPD in 2002 ‑ are immediately obvious, and the same applies to the Liberals and Greens. In last year’s federal elections the two large parties actually fell below 50 per cent in the East. The main reason for this is obvious; the rise of the Left Party with its strong societal base there. It has, in fact, been going from strength to strength the more the DDR recedes into the past.

Hans Herbert von Arnim, an astute critic of the party political scene, in describing the decline of the two large parties, coined the apt phrase “people’s parties without people”. The non-committal politics of the CDU and SPD, arising from their attempts to maintain a broad appeal, mean that they are increasingly failing to capture the imagination of the electorate. The commentator Gabor Steingart contrasts this with what he calls the “self-renewal of democracy” under way in the US under Barack Obama (“politics with people”) while in Germany the electoral base of the two large parties continues to shrink and the number of floating voters to increase at their expense. The large parties seek to or feel compelled to appeal to a wide variety of interests across the spectrum and to run “feelgood” election campaigns that avoid alienating any particular group. Against this, smaller parties with a clearer political profile, such as the Greens and especially the sharply focused Liberals (FDP), have been gaining support. Even the once cast-iron mental barrier against voting for the extreme right, whose slogans can hardly be beaten for sheer blandness, is no longer impermeable. While it has admittedly not yet been breached at the level of federal elections, the NPD achieved a breakthrough in 2009 with its re-entry to a state parliament (in Saxony) for the first time in recent years.

 

The electoral decline of the large parties has been accompanied by a massive fall in party membership. Since the early 1990s the SPD has lost over 400,000 members and the CDU nearly 300,000. There are diverse reasons for this. Parties today, for example, no longer enjoy the same political patronage over local appointments they once enjoyed. They have also become less attractive to younger people and this has led to a marked aging of party structures. Almost 50 per cent of the membership of both the CDU and SPD is now over sixty. The lack of clear identity depresses the motivation to join a party and, together with factors such as the preference of young people for more unconventional forms of engagement, is a major reason why young people in particular are becoming ever more alienated from the major parties.

 

The weakness of the large parties is the focus of several contributions in Whither Germany?, including those by Warnfried Dettling and Manfred Bissinger. They note the sharp decline in the number of people who identify with a party. The spread of individualism, as reflected for example in the breakup of traditional family structures, has tended to foster both electoral abstinence and changing public values: indeed this change in political culture has led to voting itself being decreasingly regarded as a civic duty. This move away from a culture of electoral participation has already been experienced in other countries, though there is no reason to panic yet as, by European standards, electoral participation in Germany is still above the average, even if the rapidity with which it is falling is very marked. The decline in electoral participation is nevertheless worth examining in conjunction with other factors, because it indicates that significant changes are taking place. Democratic parties must pursue more credible policies and place the issues that affect voters back on the political agenda. The current “consensus culture” repels many voters.

 

The CDU and SPD have become increasingly indistinguishable from each other. There are various reasons for this, not least the erosion over decades of the religious and social milieus which once formed the political bases of the two parties. While the fall in their support is certainly at least partially due to the period of CDU-SPD grand coalition (2002-2009) when party differences became even more blurred, there are also more deep-seated structural factors at work. The “people’s parties” will be able to rely less and less on the social milieus from which they once drew their support and the electorate’s perception of them as having a certain competence in problem-solving is also rapidly fading.

 

The share of the popular vote which the large parties can expect to attract in future could fall to as low as 30 per cent, and this must have consequences for the strategies they adopt. Two-party coalitions of CDU and SPD will no longer be an option: such “grand coalitions” are regarded as questionable in a parliamentary democracy while – unlike Scandinavia, for example – the concept of minority government has never been accepted in Germany. Large parties also dislike three-party coalitions as in such arrangements the smaller partners tend to achieve a higher political profile than the main party involved. Coalitions in Germany are commonly described by the traditional colours associated with the different parties: black (clerical/conservative) for the CDU/CSU, red (social democrat/socialist) for the SPD and the Left Party, yellow (liberal) for the FDP and green for the Greens. German coalitions come in three types: a “black-led alliance” or “Jamaica option” (CDU, Liberals and Greens), a “traffic light alliance” (SPD, Liberals and Greens) and a “left alliance” (SPD, Greens, Left Party). A “grand coalition” of the two major parties is regarded as an anomaly of questionable democratic validity. The section of Whither Germany? headed “Strategy” discusses all of these possible combinations.

 

In his contribution, Oskar Niedermayer, a Berlin-based party expert, examines the range of probable and improbable coalitions. He says that the differences between the liberal FDP and the Greens are not of a kind as to rule out a three-way coalition involving both of them. In fact the two parties have much in common with each other, such as on socio-economic and cultural issues. However they might differ in emphasis, both espouse a “smaller state” and tend towards a libertarian rather than an authoritarian value system. The problem for them is rather that while the Liberals are intent on not ending up as a fig leaf for a red-green alliance, the Greens want to avoid finding themselves in a similar position in a black-yellow (conservative-liberal) one. There is no sign that either of them currently has any intention of becoming involved in such a risky arrangement at federal level. Programmatic similarities and strategic calculation mean that the Greens are – just about ‑ still closer to the SPD, while the Liberals, whose image in the public mind is stubbornly associated with a tendency to flip-flop in either direction, are closer to the CDU. In terms of political programmes, Green voters tend to be closer to the SPD while FDP voters are closer to the Union. But the Greens are already demonstrating a tendency towards more flexibility in this area than the Liberals.

 

Change in one area of political culture – for example the stabilisation of a five-party system since the establishment of the Left Party ‑ does not automatically mean that change in another, eg the establishment of a three-party coalition system, will follow. Furthermore, not one of the three-way coalitions envisaged has yet displayed the common ground on which it would bid for power in inaugurating a new era of government. A common programme was the basis for the “Coalition of Reform” forged by the SPD and FDP in 1969, and a commitment to the NATO double track rearmament strategy to militarily underpin Germany’s integration in the West formed the basis of the CDU-FDP coalition elected in 1982. The same applied even more particularly in 1998 when the SPD and Greens went to the electorate proposing a change of government based on an unambiguous choice between alternative coalitions. In that case neither the SPD nor the Greens saw the “Red-Green project” as creating a “new” republic but merely as bringing about a “different” republic (one with more rights for people with a “migration background” for example).

 

In 1949 and again in 2005 proposed coalitions involving a large party and one of the smaller ones failed to secure a majority. In the first case a coalition was eventually formed between the Christian Democrats and two of the smaller parties (the FDP and the national-conservative “German Party”), while in 2005 the electoral mathematics meant that the only option was the formation of a grand coalition of the two major parties. The outcome of the 2009 election, following four years of grand coalition, was one that few had foreseen. The result put the CDU in a position to create a two-party coalition, thanks mainly to the extraordinary vote achieved by the FPD. This spared the country the paradoxical situation of the poor result for the two people’s parties ensuring that the grand coalition would have to continue in power simply because the figures were insufficient to enable a normal two-party government to be formed. A three-party arrangement was at this stage still regarded as politically “inappropriate”. Failure to end the grand coalition after the 2009 federal elections would have served the interests of neither the CDU nor the SPD, and arguably not of parliamentary democracy either. Only extremist forces would have gained from such a scenario.

 

The Left Party can now be regarded as solidly established across Germany – just twenty years after the peaceful revolution of 1989. A decision by the SPD and Greens to form an opposition alliance with it as the basis of a viable alternative government would not change the realignment of German politics into two blocs that is currently under way. In fact it would accelerate it, despite the continued decline of the two large parties. The advantages of such a decision would be that it would rule out the likelihood of a return to a grand coalition, that the choice of clear alternative governments would halt the further decline of the large parties, and that clear alternative coalition options would be available. But it also has a major downside in that it would represent a breach in the traditional anti-extremist consensus of the Federal Republic. It should also be pointed out that the process of realignment into two identifiable blocs is not universal across the federal states, as the emergence of CDU coalitions with the Greens in both Saarland and Thuringia following the 2009 state elections showed.

 

The concept of the “people’s party” need not yet be abandoned. In the end of the day the success of the “German model” was due not least to the people’s parties renouncing ideology and promoting a politics of pragmatism and broad societal appeal. Yet it is possibly precisely because the CDU is not “black” enough and the SPD not “red” enough that the large parties have been losing support. One of the reasons why voters are deserting them in droves (the SPD more than the CDU) is because the narrower political range and appeal of the smaller parties mean that they are programmatically and strategically better positioned to secure the support of specific constituencies.

 

While German unification has led to some fundamental changes, in the western part of the country as well as the eastern, it has also been marked by a high degree of continuity. The question is to what extent today’s united Germany – now a good twenty years after the fall of the Wall – represents a new republic or simply an extended version of the old Federal Republic. In the terms of the popular cliché: “Do we have a Berlin Republic?” To answer this would require an analysis of a whole range of areas: institutional structures, the socio-economic system, political culture, political extremism, democratic conflict and foreign policy alignment. But given the primary importance of political parties in forming political opinion an examination of the party system is crucial. The core issue is whether federal elections are showing that the new Germany in fact has two different party systems, one in the East and one in the West ‑ and at first glance this might indeed appear to be the case.

 

In the federal elections of 1994, 1998 and 2002 the PDS – the successor party to the old East German communists – nearly succeeded in preventing viable CDU-Liberal or Red-Green majority governments emerging. It was only with the addition of extra seats won through the proportional list system on the basis of vote surpluses that the wafer-thin lead of the parties forming the government coalitions was secured following these elections. The emergence of the two blocs, CDU-Liberal and Red-Green, only emerged in 2005. In all federal elections since the fall of the Wall, with the exception of the 1990 election, which was a special case, the SPD and the PDS/Left Party combined won a majority of all seats in the former East Germany while, on the other hand, the CDU and the FDP combined won a majority of all seats in the “old” federal states of western Germany in all federal elections with the exception of 1998. The reasons for this east-west divide in voter behaviour are complex and include factors such as differing processes of political socialisation (for example a greater tendency towards belief in the state in the East) as well as immediate factors (such as higher unemployment in the East).

 

Particularly notable is the major difference between the vote of the Left Party in eastern and western Germany. In the East the party has served as a junior coalition partner in SPD-led governments in several federal states ‑ in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern from 1998 to 2006, in Berlin since 2002 and in Brandenburg since 2009. Throughout the “new” federal states the Left Party is widely regarded as a normal democratic party. The political success of the party has recently extended to western Germany, though at a more modest level.

 

In 2005 the SPD dramatically lost the state elections in the western Land of North Rhine Westphalia. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder responded by gambling his political future on seeking a mandate in an early federal election for his reform programme, which included the highly contentious labour market reform package known as “Hartz IV”, designed by Schröder adviser Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz. This indirectly precipitated the resignation of SPD chairman and former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine and his desertion to the left-wing movement that had formed in opposition to the Hartz programme – the WASG (Alternative Work and Social Justice List) ‑ and its subsequent amalgamation with the PDS to form the Left Party. In the federal election that followed, the new party, whose slate of candidates included representatives of the WASG, won 4.9 per cent of the vote in the former West Germany. This represented a significant change in the composition of its electoral base, which now consisted predominantly of what are called “modernisation losers”, that is social groups, formerly social democratic core voters, who were losing out most from economic “modernisation”. If the electoral performance of the Left Party in the West continues its current upward trend, it could actually lead to an alignment of party systems between the two regions, but in a way that was not quite so predictable: the East would in fact be changing the West. What this means is that the hitherto plausible thesis that government from Berlin was a continuation of the Bonn Republic and that Germany following unification was just an extended version of the old Federal Republic would no longer apply.

 

The beginning of a balancing out of Left Party support between East and West reflected in the 2009 federal election results saw it achieve 8.3 per cent of the vote in the West, equivalent almost to the proportion of the vote it achieved in the whole of Germany (8.7 per cent) in the previous federal election in 2005 and more than double the vote it achieved in 2002 (4 per cent). A similar tendency is also apparent in CDU support which, from a markedly weaker position in eastern Germany, increased 4.5 percentage points there while dropping 2.9 points in the West. For the CDU we can thus observe an opposite trend in the balancing out of its electoral support and, if patterns of party loyalty and acceptance of electoral democracy also begin to balance out, this too will be reflected in electoral behaviour.

 

The party system is less firmly rooted in the new federal states of eastern Germany than in the West. This is demonstrated not only by the great electoral successes of the Left Party in the East, but also by support for the extreme right, which tends to be markedly stronger in the East, with the NPD now represented in two eastern state parliaments. But organisational structures in general also tend to be markedly weaker in the East, and this applies both to political parties as well as to other social and civic organisations. Commentators who point out that democracy has yet to be consolidated in the new federal states are not being hysterical but are simply highlighting important problems that tend to be neglected and ought to be given more attention.

 

The basis on which political coalitions are formed can vary greatly, and includes factors such as similarity of programme, convergence of strategic interest, electoral arithmetic, the chemistry between leading politicians and experience from alliances formed in the past. Many of these are analysed from diverse perspectives in this book. But as regards the emerging system of potential coalition blocs, three principal variants arise: an alliance formed within the same broad political camp; an alliance of three parties which extends beyond a specific camp; and a grand coalition, that is an alliance between two distinct camps. The first two models come in a series of alternative potential arrangements; two opposed blocs which encompass all parties of the political spectrum (Conservative-Green versus SPD-Left-Green) or encompass most of the spectrum (Conservative-Green versus SPD-Green, with the Left Party on the outside, deemed an unfit party for coalition). The same applies to potential three-way coalition blocs broader than one specific camp: a version encompassing all parties of the political spectrum, consisting of the alternatives Conservative-Liberal-Green or SPD-Green-Liberal. In this case the former is a more likely option than the latter.

 

An openness in the SPD to an alliance with the Left Party emerged shortly after the 2009 federal election. The new SPD leadership of Sigmar Gabriel immediately began to signal a “change of strategy” and to espouse a pragmatic relationship with the Left Party. Even though there are elements in the Left Party that fear taking on governmental responsibility, the party will not be the reason for the failure of any attempt to form a cooperative arrangement with the SPD (and the Greens). As soon as it becomes clear that a fundamental change has occurred in the positions of the other parties on this issue, the Left Party will fall into line.

 

There is every reason to believe that what occurred in a series of stages at local state level will be repeated at federal level – firstly “toleration” (that is PDS support from outside for SPD-led governments) in eastern federal states (the 1994 “Magdeburg Model” in Saxony-Anhalt), then coalition in eastern federal states with the PDS (the 1998 “Schwerin Model” in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), a full coalition in a “mixed” federal state (the 2002 “Small Berlin Coalition” model), the attempt by the Left Party to implement the “toleration” model in a western federal state (the 2008 “Wiesbaden Model” in Hessen) and finally the attempt at a full coalition involving the Left Party in a western federal state (the 2009 “Saarbrucken Model” in the Saar). This strategy has an internal logic and consistency, despite continued SPD insistence that coalition with the Left Party can only be on the basis that the latter raises no claim to the post of state premier. If the SPD continues to insist on this condition it will create difficulties for the formation of coalitions in eastern federal states, where the Left Party is stronger. The double question of whether the inclusion of the Left Party in a coalition would undermine the anti-extremist consensus of federal German politics and whether the SPD would profit from such a situation is a different matter. The answer to the first is a clear Yes and to the second a clear No.

 

If the public is made aware before an election that the objective of the three opposition parties, the SPD, Greens and Left Party, is to form a Left Alliance government, or at least that it is not ruled out, a proportion of traditional social democrat supporters who reject such a course on principle can be expected not to go along with it, and the same would apply to a certain proportion of Green voters. In his contribution in Whither Germany?, Matthias Jung points to this as a decisive issue. The performance of a government certainly is a determining factor in the outcome of elections, and it is well known that governments tend more to lose elections than oppositions to win them. Will it be any different in Germany next time out? The electorate evidently does not want a government that includes the Left Party. This admittedly puts the SPD in a difficult but certainly not a hopeless position. State elections are due to take place on May 9th, 2010 in North Rhine Westphalia, the largest by far of the federal states. These will be the only elections held in Germany in 2010. Should the CDU-Liberal coalition lose its majority in Düsseldorf the CDU-Liberal coalition at national level would lose its majority in the second house, the Bundesrat. This would be a major blow to the CDU and FPD and greatly weaken their position just a year out from federal elections. The SPD must now state where it stands – if it achieves sufficient votes in North Rhine Westphalia will it form a coalition with the Left Party or not? Over two decades after the fall of the Wall, the development of the party political system is more open than ever.

 

Translation by Philip O’Connor. The Dublin Review of Books would like to thank the Goethe-Institut Dublin for its assistance in the commissioning and translation of this essay.


Eckhard Jesse was born in 1948 in Wurzen, East Germany, and is professor and head of the Department of Political Systems and Political Institutions at Chemnitz University of Technology. His research focus includes German political parties, political extremism and totalitarianism, elections and voting systems, comparative research on democracies and dictatorships and the historical roots of contemporary politics. His most recent books are Diktaturen in Deutschland: Diagnosen und Analysen (Baden-Baden, 2008) and Demokratie in Deutschland: Diagnosen und Analysen (Cologne 2008).

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