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Is German social democracy back from the dead?

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
Until very recently, Germany’s Labour‑type SPD looked out for the count. Now, with a right wing leader, it looks set to come top in the coming general election. But behind this apparent revival is a crisis for all mainstream parties
Issue 2773
The SPD looked dead and buried - but has it really revived?
The SPD looked dead and buried – but has it really revived?

One of Europe’s most successful conservative parties faces humiliation at a general election on Sunday of next week. The right wing CDU and its CSU ally have ruled Germany for 50 of the past 70 years. But now they are trailing well behind the Labour-type SPD party.

It’s not hard to see why the right is in trouble. It has presided over 93,000 coronavirus deaths—not as bad as Britain, but in Germany too the demands of big business came before public health.

Angela Merkel, who is retiring as chancellor, was first elected in 2005. Despite economic growth, it’s been a time of poverty for many and soaring fortunes for a few.

The top one percent now have 30 ­percent of the wealth and Germany is one of the most unequal countries in Europe.

In 2015 a third of unemployed people lived in poverty. Now it’s two-thirds. Meanwhile, the wealth of German billionaires increased by £130 billion last year alone.

Merkel has been a reliable friend of German capitalism. She played a ­leading role in insisting that Greece must be crushed under the debt burden despite its voters choosing the anti-austerity party Syriza in 2015.

Although she briefly was seen as ­opening Germany to refugees from Syria, Merkel swiftly changed course to encouraging deportations. And at the same time she said the burqa was “not acceptable in Germany” and “should be banned”.

The right have lost some urban votes to the Greens and the SPD. In rural areas sections have backed the far right AfD. There is a much deeper political crisis for the mainstream parties.

Germany is seen as a rich ­country, but it is a country with many poor people

Anti-racist activist Gisela Kaya

When Angela Merkel became ­chancellor in 2005, the CDU/CSU and the SPD took nearly 70 percent of the vote between them. Now together they grab well under half.

For the first time ever in Germany, it’s even possible that no party will win the backing of a quarter of those who vote. No party is really popular.

Recent polls show the SPD on around 24 percent, the CDU/CSU on 20 percent, the Greens on 15 percent and the liberal free-market FDP on 11 percent. The AfD is on 11 percent and the socialists of Die Linke are on 7 percent.

If the election results correspond to the polls, at least three parties would be needed to form a majority capable of governing.

Gisela Kaya, an anti-racist activist in Frankfurt, told Socialist Worker, “It’s time for a real change. We have had enough of parties that are for the rich and don’t listen to people over climate change or proper benefits or wages you can live on.

“Germany is seen as a rich ­country, but it is a country with many poor people.”

After the election there will be much mainstream attention on what sort of coalition will eventually emerge. The reality is that there will be very little difference except who takes the top job.

The SPD has been in coalition with the right for most of Merkel’s reign. It has happily accepted her right wing assaults.

A recent series of rail strikes has ­highlighted how all the main parties are the enemies of workers fighting back.

The CDU is considering tighter anti‑union laws, while the SPD has attacked the strikers for not giving more notice and therefore being too effective. The Greens said the action risked increasing emissions as people used their cars more.

Workers will need more struggle ­whoever ends up as chancellor.

Baerbock wants an alliance with industry
Baerbock wants an alliance with industry (Pic: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen on Flickr)

How the Greens swung behind big business and war

The Green Party is currently running third in the battle to become Germany’s next chancellor.

Millions of people hope that the party can rein in big businesses’ pursuit of profit at the expense of the planet. But Green party leaders have very different ideas.

Annalena Baerbock, the party’s candidate for chancellor, has spent the last decade in a dialogue with Germany’s industrial bosses, looking for a “pact”.

“The markets of the future will be climate-neutral,” she told her party conference. “The question is not whether this will happen, but who will do it best. I want [Germany] to be at the forefront.”

That sought after pact saw the former chief executive of the multinational giant Siemens address the Greens’ conference. Siemens is knee-deep in coal mining and other destructive infrastructure projects.

The party also recently helped broker talks between car maker Porsche and battery maker Custom Cells to make an electric racing car.

Torge Thonnessen, the battery firm’s chief executive, describes the change in approach by the Greens as a transition from a hard line environmental party to “a party of the bourgeoisie”.

“Their goals haven’t necessarily changed,” he says. “But they have become less radical”.


The Greens are also anxious to show their support for the kind of “active foreign policy” that saw German troops in Afghanistan.

For Baerbock such missions must continue. “As Germans, we have a responsibility in the world,” she said.

That responsibility apparently includes massive re-armament. The party leader argued that Nato’s target of 2 percent of output being spent annually on the military is far too small.

The turn of the Greens toward not only “green capitalism”, but “green big business”, has consequences for the climate movement in Germany and beyond.

Capitalism pollutes not because its leaders are ignorant of the damage it does, but because of the competition at the heart of the system.

The profit-based race against rivals pushes firms to act in ever more destructive ways. That is why millions of people have concluded that rescuing the planet means rejecting the free market and the global system that goes with it.

Green leaders once claimed to understand this, but are now trying to help capitalism restore its shattered credibility.

How the SPD grew on the backs of rivals’ failures

Only a few months ago the SPD party, which is similar to Labour in Britain, looked dead in the water.

Trailing in the polls to both the Greens and the conservative CDU, many said the party’s long term decline was irreversible.

Now, the SPD’s chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, is riding high. He is widely expected to form the next government in coalition with other parties of the centre and centre left.

But Scholz, the finance minister in the current coalition, is walking a political tightrope.

On the one hand, he claims to be the natural heir to CDU chancellor Angela Merkel.

But on the other, Scholz says he wants a new “respect” agenda that will see the minimum wage rise, housing costs brought down, and better pensions.

What’s behind the downfall of social democracy?
What’s behind the downfall of social democracy?
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Though his reforms are moderate, they will encounter resistance and no one is really sure how this “technocratic” and centrist leader will respond.

Much of the SPD’s bounce-back stems from the failure of its rivals. The CDU candidate Armin Laschet is so disliked that his party branches are asking for posters without his picture on them.

Meanwhile, the Greens saw their ratings plummet after its candidate, Annalena Baerbock, was found to have falsified her CV.

This has allowed Scholz to grab votes from both parties while making very few commitments about what an SPD government will offer working class people.

But the last time the party led a coalition with the Greens it pushed through an austerity programme that slashed benefits and attacked living standards.

That led millions of voters to desert the party, first at regional elections, and then at national polls. The SPD has not won a parliamentary majority since.

There is a widespread fear that, under pressure from the bosses, the SPD could again mount such an attack under the guise of “reform”.

AfD—the right’s rabid dog

For mainstream commentators the threat of the far-right AfD party no longer needs discussing.

The party is today battling to keep its opinion poll ratings in double figures, a far cry from its popularity in 2015.

Back then the AfD was on course to become the Bundestag parliament’s largest opposition party.

Today, the party’s leaders have a longer term strategy, and one that is not restricted to elections.

In its heartlands of Saxony the party is gathering its supporters with rallies. Nazi thugs in full black bomber jacket and boots regalia mix easily with mostly retired middle classes.

The discussion is always centred on immigrants and crime—and the need for “action”. A key element in the AfD strategy is confirmed in a leaked document that calls for “carefully planned provocations” mixed with far right statements.

Party officials have been only too happy to oblige, suggesting that illegal immigrants be “gassed”.

While the party is set to do badly everywhere outside of its limited regional base, the threat it poses must be taken seriously.

Even 10 percent of the nationwide vote is very considerable. And the mixing of hard right and former conservative voters with open fascists is potent.

The AfD may yet capture some of the growing disillusionment and Covid frustration building in German society.

Left fights racism and war

The main socialist force standing in the elections is Die Linke (The Left).

It was formed as a combination of the old Communists from the east of Germany and a split from the SPD and other socialists in the west.

It includes very reformist elements and far more radical forces that see struggle as the key to change.

It has already shown it is ready to compromise by joining governing coalitions in Berlin and Bremen with the SPD and the Greens. These have implemented cuts.

And some of its leaders hope they could be part of such a coalition nationally after the elections. But the SPD is unlikely to join with a party that says it is against Nato.


Anti-racism and anti-war themes are strong in the campaign by Christine Buchholz, a member of parliament for Die Linke. She said, “We are for giving a clear no to deportations, yes to the right to vote for all people permanently living here on all levels and a no to the ban on headscarves.

“It’s an outrage that 9.7 million people won’t be able to vote because they do not have German citizenship. The SPD wants it to stay that way. The Greens are calling for the right to vote at the local level.

“Only Die Linke says all those who live in Germany in the long term should be allowed to vote at all levels.”

And Christine added, “Die Linke stands for ending foreign wars and halting arms exports. Despite the experience of Afghanistan, the SPD and the Greens continue to be champions of Nato.”


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