In Berlin New faces with old policies?

News Analysis

BERLIN — Everything has changed! Nothing has changed!

A new coalition is taking shape in Berlin. Former Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder has been replaced by the first woman to head a German government, Angela Merkel. She’s an East German at that, though she has never pushed for the rights of women or East Germans.

And for the first time since 1969 the country will be ruled by a coalition of the two main parties, the right-of-center CDU (Christian Democrats plus their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) and the Social Democrats (SPD), still occasionally called left-of-center. Each will have eight cabinet posts. They are now fine-tuning a joint policy.

It’s not a big change. The CDU, in opposition since 1998, has been a more than loyal opposition, supporting nearly every key government policy. And well they might, for almost all these policies were just what the big business doctors ordered. Their prescription for getting out of the long-lasting economic mess, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent and hitting 20 percent or more in eastern areas, was to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, charge for medical services which had always been free, push for partial privatization of future pensions and freeze the present ones, take “optional” measures to help young people desperate for job training, slash benefits to the long-term unemployed, tolerate industry’s efforts to demand more work hours per week, less vacation, less protection against layoffs — all fields where years of struggle (aided by the existence of two competing German states) had helped most workers achieve a decent standard of living. The CDU reaction was “Right on! But even sharper cuts!”

These bipartisan measures failed. Now the two parties have united, threatening an alarming future.

True, unlike the CDU, Schroeder opposed the Iraq war, enabling him to squeak through the election of 2002: East German voters, who made the difference, overwhelmingly opposed the war. But he took active part in the Balkan Wars and in Afghanistan.

Of the three smaller parties in the Bundestag, the Free Democrats, once a middle-class libertarian party but now closely tied to big business, moved further and further to the right over the years. Their 61 seats plus the 226 of the CDU did not achieve a majority (of 614). They have now been left out.

The Greens were once a vigorous left-wing party. But the years as junior partners of the SPD, their backing of its anti-social program and policy of military expansionism has left them the weakest party in the Bundestag, with 51 seats.

There is a potentially crucial new factor in the Bundestag, the “Left.” At its core are the former Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), strongest in eastern Germany, and the new Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG), stronger in West Germany.

Only the PDS was in the old Bundestag, with two young women elected directly by East Berlin constituencies. But the unexpectedly early election campaign inspired former PDS leader Gregor Gysi and a new WASG leader, Oskar Lafontaine, to join in an alliance. The combination, with unexpected new strength in western areas, enabled the party to win 8.7 percent of the vote. That meant 54 deputies in the Bundestag, more “Wessis” (from the West) than “Ossis” from the East, 26 men, 24 women — and the opportunity to become a real opposition.

Their mere presence has already had results. Schroeder’s SPD suddenly started pushing a less anti-social program and claimed to be the party of the “little people.” This helped the SPD catch up in the vote, missing victory by about 1 percent. This same fear of a genuine left is now forcing the SPD to make social demands in negotiations on a new government plan.

The new, aggressive opposition will hinder attempts to push through anti-social and expansionist measures. Perhaps it will even be possible to link the actions of the “Left” in the Bundestag to those in the factories, schools, hospitals and on the streets. What a change that could make! Though the scene at the top has not really changed radically, at the base, where it counts, there may be some profound changes.