Following a disastrous defeat for the governing SPD, the equivalent of Britain’s Labour Party, in its North Rhine and Westphalia heartland, it has called for early elections in a desperate move to ward off rebellion in its ranks.
The SPD’s defeat two weeks ago was a turning point in German politics. While it was widely expected, the scale shook the SPD leadership. The general disillusionment with the SPD means there is a great opportunity to build a credible left wing alternative.
The Wahlalternative, a new left wing party, stood in the North Rhine and Westphalia elections winning 2.2 percent.
Talks have begun between the Wahlalternative and the former East German Communists the PDS to build a new united left initiative.
Significantly, Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD party leader and finance minister, who is comparable to Tony Benn in Britain, left the SPD last week after 39 years of membership.
He is ready to head up a united left against Germany’s SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The party offices of the Wahlalternative and the PDS have been bombarded with e-mails calling on them to act together.
Surveys already show that 8 percent of people would definitely vote for a joint left effort headed by Lafontaine, and it has a possible 18-22 percent level of support.
By announcing this early election, the coalition government of the SPD and Greens has declared its political bankruptcy.
Their main initiatives, the Agenda 2010 and the dismantling of social security, have been the most aggressive attack on the welfare state since the Second World War.
The SPD has lost 135,000 members under Schröder. In January this year, after the cuts in unemployment benefits came into effect, 10,000 left the SPD.
The founding of the Wahlalternative in 2004 was the most palpable result of the bitterness of SPD supporters. Its best results in the recent elections were in former SPD strongholds such as Oberhausen, where it got 4.3 percent.
With 180,000 votes gained, it made the best first showing of a left party in the region since the Second World War. The SPD’s continuing decay and loss of popular support are the core reasons for the call for early elections.
Schröder and the SPD’s general secretary, Franz Müntefering, fear the party’s break-up and internal resistance to their neo-liberal agenda.
Ottmar Schreiner, the leader of the workers’ wing of the SPD, has threatened to leave the party. Eleven MPs have said they will not vote for tax breaks for big corporations.
Müntefering told Schröder he had lost control of the parliamentary fraction. Schröder decided on early elections because, in the words of a source, “he wanted to choose the rope to hang on”.
The left now has four months to make a big step forward.
Many issues remain unresolved. The PDS is a ruling party in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, forcing through severe cuts. A joint platform against neo-liberalism would call into question its role in these local governments.
The overall mood is one of excitement and the urge for unity is overwhelming. A historic window for the German left has opened.
We have a chance to organise the general mood, which has led to big social protests in Germany, the French no to the European constitution and the Respect breakthrough in Britain.