Berlin – For many people in the U.S. whose ancestors came from northern or eastern Europe there’s a good chance their ship left from the German city of Bremen or its adjunct Bremerhaven. For World War II veterans who were part of the U.S. occupation army in Germany, the chances are even better that they arrived via Bremerhaven and Bremen, as I did.
Today in Bremen, most shipyards are a thing of the past and it is struggling to climb out of its heavy debt as a container port. Bremen is both the smallest German state and the poorest of the former West German area. Its heavily working class population has made it a stronghold of the Social Democratic Party, without interruption, from the very beginning.
The May 22 election was true to that tradition. Nobody was surprised that the SDP got 38.1 percent of the vote and will keep the same mayor. Nor were many eyebrows raised at the big gains of the Greens. Shutting down reactors has always been a main Green talking point, and ironically the Greens are now riding on a huge popularity wave since the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster alarmed Germans.
Greens, though aging a bit around the edges, and no longer the radicals they once were, still appeal with their informality to young people. Since Bremen gave the right to vote this year to 16 and 17-year-old teenagers (the first and only such attempt in state elections) this also helped the Green party to gain an increase of over 6 points for a grand total of 23 percent.
The election results were a bitter disappointments for those two parties which form the federal government. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union got its worst result in years, with 21.5 percent, which put them, almost incredibly, behind the Greens in third place.
What about their national partners, the big-business supporters, the Free Democratic Party (also known here, strangely enough, as the “Liberals”!). For weeks they got top media coverage when they threw out their leader of ten years Westerwelle in favor of the charismatic young Philip Rösler, of Vietnamese birth but German upbringing. In one clever speech after another, Rösler claimed his party would finally move out of the doldrums. And what happened? It stayed in the doldrums, getting only 3 percent and thus not a single seat in the city-state legislature. All the happy PR effort seems to have been in vain, while party leaders, forcing a smile, say “Just wait for the next election!”
Thus the national ruling parties both lost out in Bremen, reflecting growing dissatisfaction. Exports may be doing well, the banks again handing out 6 and 7 digit bonuses to their happy bosses, and even joblessness is officially easing. But low-paid, part-time, precarious jobs have multiplied and the social network is sagging sadly, with Merkel now proposing to raise retirement age to 69 even before it has been fully raised to 67. And Bremen has far more than its share of the underemployed and jobless.
But in the past both Social Democrats and the Greens, when in opposition on the national level, made progressive sounding noises, but once they got into office watered down their juicy promises. They helped raise the retirement age, lower taxes on the wealthy, weaken the once so exemplary medical system, make things tougher for the jobless and sent troops to Afghanistan. Both echo “Bomb Libya” slogans even though Westerwelle and Merkel refrained from joining in.
And the Greens, while stressing ecology and atomic dangers, often forget people’s social needs. Some Germans say they have become a party whose members are most often high-salaried professionals.
But what about the Left Party? Four years ago Bremen was the first West German state where it cleared that 5 percent hurdle (with over 8 percent) and got into the legislature. That was the first of a happy series. But this past year has seen nothing but downturns. Recent attempts to break through in two more western states failed, it barely stayed on in Hamburg. And in Bremen?
The Left Party got close to 6 percent and 5 or 6 seats in the legislature. But this was a net loss of almost 3 percent, a lot for such a small party. What has been going wrong?
The Left Party has been subjected to media attacks or, as in Bremen, almost total silence about its election campaign. But The Left Party itself has supplied far too much ammunition, arguing, backbiting, jockeying and moving far too close to splitting.
One side in the dispute, stronger in western areas, is more militant and demands certain conditions before even considering coalitions with Greens or Social Democrats (both of whom abhor the very idea of such a coalition if at all avoidable). It wants sharper attacks again privatization of utilities and a greater stress on future anti-capitalist goals. And it wants the party program to oppose any use of German soldiers outside German borders.
The other side, far stronger in eastern Germany where it often commands 20-25 percent of the vote, hopes for a share in coalition governments, such as currently exist in the city-state of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. To achieve this it is ready to tone down demands.
Today Germany needs a unified fight to improve conditions for all those people, many of them children, who face poverty here and now. The Merkel government is trying to use the European Union to raise the pension age, cut vacation length and force wages down in all member countries, including Germany.
Neo-fascist parties, all specializing in Muslimophobia, are growing alarmingly all over Europe: Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, even France, Italy and England. The Left Party should be in the lead in fighting back, in concert with young people in Spain and England, working people ion Greece and Portugal (and Madison) and in the Arab world. Things are moving faster and faster, but require across-the-borders coordination and cooperation. It is urgently needed!
Photo: Karoline Linnert, top candidate of the Greens for the state elections in Bremen, celebrates victory May 22. Jens Schlueter/dapd/AP