Sexism, elections, and prison sentences for anti-fascists in Germany

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BERLIN - There were tweets every minute and soon tens of thousands of electronic messages - all about sexual harassment and sexism in general. The sensation magazine Stern started it with a front-page claim by a young woman journalist that the candidate for chancellor of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Rainer Brüderle, 67, had, during an interview, attempted to kiss her hand.

Top party brass of his FDP jumped to his defense, saying it was "making a mountain out of a molehill," and it was an unfair attack based on an incident which took place a year ago: why had she waited so long?

Whatever the political intentions, the reaction from women everywhere was fast and furious. A sudden glaring spotlight in some media exposed innumerable cases of harassment, especially against young women.

Some noted that while half or more of the Bundestag delegates of the Greens and the Left were women, the FDP was largely ruled by men. The CDU, despite Angela Merkel, was hardly better. Brüderle (whose name, incidentally, means "little brother), has stubbornly refused to comment or apologize, saying only that he was "a man who liked to laugh, liked to drink wine, and liked to make compliments." And with all the talk, somehow the big wage and salary disparity between men and women has rarely been mentioned.

The little right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP) had just faced other ups and downs, indeed, it seemed doomed, together with its young, dapper but mostly unloved Vietnamese-born boss, Philipp Rösler. Then, in the January 20 state elections in Lower Saxony, it and he were saved - thanks to a strange trick.

In German elections people make two penciled crosses, one for their preferred local candidate, the other for a political party, usually the same one as their candidate. The winning candidate in the district gets a seat. But even if a party does not win in a single district, if those second X-marks on the ballots add up to more than five percent in the state (or country) it still gets in, with the same percentage of seats as it got votes. That's how the Left got 11 seats in Lower Saxony in 2008.

Going into this election, neither the FDP, the Left nor the Pirates looked likely to surmount that magic five percent hurdle. And indeed, with only 3.1 per cent, the Left did get shut out - a heavy blow. With the Pirates (2.1 percent) it was even worse. But the FDP, also seemingly hopeless, jumped to an amazing 9.9 percent and stayed politically alive, along with Philipp Rösler.

The ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) again needed a partner - the FDP - to reach a majority and stay uppermost in Lower Saxony. But that party looked more than shaky. So, although it officially denied it, it obviously instructed its party stalwarts to mark their second X on the ballot not for their own CDU but for the FDP so as to bring it over the 5 percent, save its skin (or its seats) and with the combined numbers, gain a majority. But only half the trick worked: The FDP was indeed saved by the 100,000 votes temporarily lent it, but in a surprise turn, after a see-saw battle lasting tensely till late in the night, the opposing team of Social Democrats and Greens beat them out by a hair or, correctly, by a tiny majority of one seat in the legislature. And with no disturbing Left or Pirate parties either.

Let me take a jump, thematically and geographically, from Lower Saxony to plain Saxony. Despite their names they are hardly related; dialect and character differences between western Hanover and eastern Dresden are about as sharp as, say, between Boston and Brooklyn. But down there, too, there were strange things going on - very disturbing things.

Readers of these bulletins may recall my impressions of the blockade against Nazis two years ago in Dresden. For the second year in a row many organizations had joined to stop the annual Nazi marches on the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, with their "hate foreigners" and "Germany for the Germans" messages.

Most city leaders, shamed at last into some sort of reaction, held hands in a mile-long anti-Nazi protest - but far away from the Nazis' planned route across the Elbe River, which divides Dresden. After all, the courts had ruled it a legal march, entitled to police protection.

Many took a different view, thinking of the past, and an estimated 18,000 anti-fascists came to Dresden and, despite containment by the unfriendly police, blocked the Nazis, who crept home after a "march" aborted" just 100 yards from the railroad station.

All was peaceful until evening, after most of us had left, and there was a brief melee between the police and a small group of super-militants of the "black bloc" kind. But the police also broke violently into the nearly empty headquarters of the anti-fascists (and the Left) in a move later found to be illegal. The secret tapping into virtually all cell telephones that day was an equally dubious move, most probably illegal.

This year the stymied Nazis found it wiser to turn their main attention to another city (Magdeburg), where there was again a similar split on tactics. But Dresden's "city fathers" (also its "mother" mayor) want no more such blockades, not even fully peaceful ones. Therefore, after an almost incredible two-year delay, a court has sentenced a 36-year-old family father from Berlin, never before arrested, for allegedly using a megaphone to urge the anti-fascist crowd to move forward.

He was engaged in no violence; it is uncertain whether he was really the man with the megaphone. All the same he was sentenced to 22 months in prison, without probation, for "breach of the peace" - longer than most Nazis get for true violence (in rare cases when they are tried).

The judge displayed his bias with the words: "The people of Dresden are sick of getting visited by demonstrators." Another participant who took part in the anti-Nazi action, a Protestant pastor, will be put on trial in March for allegedly "inciting violence." The intent of these and similar cases is all too clear. Let Nazis march - but don't let anyone stand - or sit - in their way.

Now, to make things clearer on the national level, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich announced that the Constitutional Protection Agency ("Verfassungsschutz" - like the FBI) will continue to secretly observe members of the Left party. But, as he pointed out, not all the members, and not those of a more reformerish complexion.

It will now keep its suspicious eye on those with "extremist connections," which means members of perfectly legitimate groups within the Left party which he considers a danger to the "free-democratic basic order" of the country - like the Communist Platform (with about 1,250 members) and smaller groups like the Marxist Forum, the Anti-Capitalist Left, the Socialist Left and Cuba Sí, all of them fully official caucuses within the party.

As one Bundestag deputy of the Left stated, this was a tactically motivated, inacceptable move...Instead of exercising humility in light of his party's scandalous failure in connection with the ten fascist murders, the bombing and bank raids by the Nazi NSU (National Socialist Union) and the insufferable failure of the Constitution Protectors in preventing them and finding the killers, it is stubbornly sticking to the same old Cold War agenda."

The aim of the rightwing minister was clearly to split and thus destroy the Left party. The left wing groups he threatened, who have far more influence than their numbers indicate, are the elements in the party most opposed to electoral agreements with the Social Democrats and Greens, which they view as unprincipled as well as harmful.

Others - despite continued put-downs and insults by the Greens and SPD, still dream of a three party coalition. This line, promoted by some during the campaign in Lower Saxony, proved disastrous.

With a diluted Left program, too many voters thought, we might as well vote for a winner like the SPD - or stay home. But the issues are still being debated. And the crucial September elections are now only eight months away.

After the other parties chose their top candidates to lead the charge - with the Greens choosing two - the Left leadership decided finally on a team of eight, with four women, four men, five Easterners and three Westerners. Two or three candidates were young and as yet hardly known. They stress that they are raring to go. Time will tell.

Photo: An anti-nazi demonstration takes place in northern Germany.   Joerg Sarbach/AP

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