Merkel victory in Germany: Was it really so big?

BERLIN – What rejoicing! What a triumph for Angela Merkel (“Mutti” or “Angie” as she is so often called), the East German girl who, as head of state, has really made it to the top.

All the world is congratulating her, and she did indeed succeed in winning an awful lot of votes in the German elections last week. Yes, personalities do count, and the combination of an administration unplagued by tumult or any recent economic crashes plus her homey, unexcited, down-to-earth way of speaking made for her big success.

But was it really such a big win? The collapse of the junior partners in her government, the Free Democrats, left them out of the Bundestag and her out of a majority! Her 42 percent vote, impressive as it was with many parties contesting, left her with the biggest bloc of 311 seats in the 630-seat Bundestag, but five seats short of a needed majority. So instead of the previous more-or-less like-minded partner, further to the right on most issues, she must try to forge an alliance with her main election opponents, the Social Democrats.

In a way, this was a Pyrrhic victory; her new Social Democratic partners will, even more than the Free Democrats, try to get into the act, stymying every move they disapprove of  and always geared to winning points with the public.

But if we are to judge by the four years (2005-2009) when the last such Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition, their differences may not be on principle. In the election campaign the Social Democrats tried to sound very socially conscious. But some recalled that the two biggest parties, ruling together, had in 2007 raised the value-added tax from 16 to 19 percent on virtually all purchases – for most people a hard blow to the solar plexus.

And since the Social Democrats have also supported virtually the Merkel government’s entire foreign policy no great changes can be expected. Indeed, campaign foe Steinbrück once served happily as Finance Minister with Merkel as her chancellor.

Merkel might try to win those majority-necessary votes in the Bundestag not with the Social Democrats but from the Greens. For years, most Greens would have considered the whisper of such a move the worst kind of blasphemy; after all, they were founded as a protest party. But somehow its leaders have not only grayed physically but also in the vigor of their principles. They hammered away against atomic and coal energy and thus gained popularity especially after the Fukushima catastrophe, but otherwise they have moved more and more to what is euphemistically called “the center.” Their ecological demands often lacked regard for the welfare of those less prosperous – or less educated.

On foreign policy they were often rabid – denouncing Merkel’s government for not joining in the war against Libya while approving, except for some brave mavericks, involvement in Afghanistan.

Some right-wing Greens have been bold enough to support a deal with Merkel, which could also put her over the top in her hunt for a majority.

There is actually one other possibility. If Social Democrats and Greens would join with the Left Party they would have 319 seats, four more than required, and they could govern. Or could they?

During the entire election campaign right-wingers warned of just this danger, sounding as if the three parties were conspiring to rebuild the Berlin Wall or reconstitute the Stasi. (The state security organization of the dismantled German Democratic Republic.)

The Social Democrats swore repeatedly that they would never, ever even think of joining those far left bad boys and girls and the Greens chimed in, if not quite so loudly.

Within the Left Party there was also much debate, indeed controversy, as to whether joining in such a government coalition might head them down a fatal rightward ramp. Now the possibility has finally arrived – but it seems likely that, as so often in the past, Social Democrats (and Greens as well) would prefer to team up with Merkel on the right rather than with a party which, despite all its inner conflicts and disagreements, is the only real force opposing painful, unnecessary cuts on the domestic scene and more and more involvement on the international stage – brutal economically and often militarily as well.

So what about the Left? How did it manage in an election often labeled dull, unexciting, and boring. The reason for these labels flows from the media’s focus on the two main candidates, whose personalities differed far more sharply than their views or plans.

It was actually the Left Party which provided the suspense! Foreign media almost universally missed this, whether on purpose or due to ingrained prejudices. The International Herald Tribune (run by the New York Times), reporting on the elections in the days before and after the vote, had plenty on Merkel and Steinbrück and a whole page on the new anti-Euro party (which then failed to make it into the Bundestag), but only a tiny handful of lines barely mentioning the Left Party and even then getting facts and even dates wrong.

Many German media reported that the party, with fewer votes, was thus a loser. But the triumphant spirit at party headquarters in Berlin seemed to cancel out this judgment.

True enough, the Left Party received nearly four percent points less than in its glorious, nearly 12 percent vote of 2009 – which was in many ways exceptional, following as it did four years of Merkel-Social Democratic coalition. But members of the party recall that outside pressure and especially inner dispute hit so hard that until last June it seemed doubtful whether it could even get the needed five percent to stay in the Bundestag.

Then, after an armistice within the party and a consistent position against involvement in Syria and on social issues, the poll results inched upward, straggling during the summer from six to eight, then more recently creeping up to nine and even ten. A two digit result as goal, first uttered as a joke with a dreamy smile, gained vigor and became more realistic. In this sense the final 8.6 percent result was a disappointment. But the Left was definitely still in play and, with the Free Democrats out and the Greens in a nose-dive, it found itself in third place.

Gregor Gysi, fraction chairperson and by far  the party’s main election speaker, was jubilant: “If I had said in 1990 that our party would one day become the third strongest party in Germany I might have wound up in psychiatric treatment.” Now, if Merkel joins with the Social Democrats, which seems most likely, the Left Party will lead the opposition, ahead of the weakened Greens.

There was one more slim triumph for the Left Party. Aside from the main vote there was one state election on Sunday, in Hesse. There, too, while Social Democrats and Christian Democrats were billed as main opponents, four smaller parties yearned to cross that five percent line. The Free Democrats, while failing on the federal level, managed to just barely scrape through with five percent, a very tiny consolation for their historic loss. The new right-wing Alternative for Germany party, basing itself largely on opposition to the euro currency, got lots of votes for a new party but missed the hurdle both nationally and in Hesse. And the young Pirates party, which garnered so much publicity in past years, got marooned on both levels at around two percent.

And the Left Party? Up until the end the polls gave it a bitter four percent; it looked as if it would lose its hold in one of the last states in former West Germany. But, after some teetering close to that fatal line, it finally emerged with 5.4 percent and will be right in there, embarrassing the other Hessians in the state legislature. There, too, as on the national level, it will now be necessary to move pieces like Lego bricks in an attempt to somehow form a government without those accursed lefties. They cannot be ignored; in other words, this too was a victory for the Left Party – if a slim one!

Elsewhere there were ups and downs. The Christian Democrats, building on the “Angela image” and hopefully continued economic stability, moved ahead almost everywhere. In four of the five former East German states the Left Party came in second, in East Berlin (but only there) four candidates won seats directly in their districts (among them Gregor Gysi and former party co-president Gesine Loetzsch) They regained some of their former strength in East Berlin, always in first place and almost 35 percent in one borough, and even did well in West Berlin, with nearly 15 percent in one borough. It will now send 64 delegates to the Bundestag, 34 women and 30 men, twelve less than in 2009.

All in all, the elections produced a hodge-podge of results; it may take weeks or months to agree on a new government – under the scepter of “Mutti” Angela. It is way too early, however, to celebrate too much about Left Party gains. With no more need to placate voters, and with possible weak resistance from the Social Democratic partners, Germany could now lurch further to the right, at home and in foreign policy. Mass resistance is the thing that will be required to perevent this from happening.

Photo: Members of the Left Party delegation in the Bundestag pose for a photo on the steps of the German Parliament. Die Linke/Flickr (CC)


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.