The radical left Die Linke party made significant gains in the German state elections last month.
This shows that during the economic crisis, many ordinary people are turning to those who represent their interests, not the interests of capitalism.
With just weeks to a general election, the ruling conservative CDU party took a pounding in the state elections – losing more than 10 percent of its vote in the states of Saarland and Thüringen.
Its collapse shows that the “social question” is back with a vengeance. Millions of workers rightly fear that they will be expected to pick up the bill for bailing out the system.
It didn’t help that in the run up to the regional polls, chancellor Angela Merkel used public money to put on a birthday party for Josef Ackermann, head of Deutsche Bank and a symbol of corporate greed.
The situation for the SPD – the German equivalent of New Labour – is no better. In the Saarland election it got the worst results in its history.
Meanwhile, the left party, Die Linke, made an important breakthrough, winning 21.3 percent of the vote in Saarland – only just behind the SPD.
Die Linke received 46 percent of the vote among the unemployed – which has been a key component in the party’s voting base since it was set up in 2007.
But for the first time Die Linke was the strongest party among employed workers, winning 34 percent of their votes, compared to the 27 percent taken by the SPD.
In the wake of the European elections many commentators made much of the failure of the left to benefit from the crisis of capitalism. The common sense in the media was that in times of economic trouble people want parties who can get the economy going again.
In Germany at least, this line is no longer tenable. The media has since tried to downplay Die Linke’s success by ascribing it to the “Oskar effect” – after Oskar Lafontaine, one of the party’s national leaders, who led the campaign in Saarland.
The charisma of Lafontaine, who fought on his home turf, did play an important role. But the success was mostly due to the politics of the campaign, which included opposition to the government’s benefit reform plan, proposals for a wealth tax and a minimum wage, and withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.
Die Linke was jubilant. However, voting patterns in other states should make us think about our future strategy.
Compared to previous elections Die Linke did badly in Saxony, losing 19,000 votes to the SPD and another 40,000 where people just didn’t vote. This was the result of a campaign that failed to polarise responses to the economic crisis along class lines.
Lacklustre slogans such as “Do the reasonable thing” marked a difference to the campaign in Saarland, which focused on the things which make Die Linke unique.
But another danger looms. In Saarland and Thüringen, Die Linke is in a position to enter governments with the SPD and the Greens.
The head of the SPD in Saarland said that he will open negotiations with Die Linke. The Die Linke leadership has said that it will only enter coalition talks under certain conditions. These include no social spending cuts, no lay-offs, and no privatisation.
Given that public finances in Germany are going through the floor, these conditions would rule out going into government if they are not dropped.
One of the tasks of the radical left inside Die Linke is to fight to uphold this uncompromising stance. After all, there are worse things than a conservative government – and a betrayal by the left of millions of working class supporters would be one.
Stefan Bornost is editor of Marx21 magazine in Germany