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A new challenge from the left in Germany
POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS in Germany are speeding up. In January a new left-wing party was formally launched called "Work and Social Justice – the Election Alternative" (WASG).
Sascha Stanicic, Socialist Alternative, Berlin, Germany
This party is a by-product of the fact that millions of workers and unemployed have turned away in disgust from the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) because of an avalanche of attacks on workers' rights and the so-called welfare state.
The new party is also a product of the mass movements against the government in 2003 and 2004 and represents the beginning of the break of sections of the trade unions with the SPD.
This new party received more than 180,000 votes or 2.2 % in its first electoral contest in the regional elections in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany's biggest federal state, on 22 May. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD lost this election in what is generally regarded as the social democratic heartland of the country. As a result, the SPD leadership announced an early general election in autumn this year.
Since then a big politicisation has developed in the country. This has been reinforced by Oskar Lafontaine's comeback into 'official' German politics.
Lafontaine was the chairperson of the SPD when the social democrat and green party coalition took over from the conservative-liberal government of Helmut Kohl in 1998. He was the first finance minister of this allegedly left-wing government but quit after a few months because of fundamental political differences with Schröder.
Lafontaine, who is widely seen as a left-winger, stands for 'Keynesian' (increased public expenditure) economic policies and argues for higher wages, the maintenance of a welfare state and workers' rights.
Schröder's SPD-Green coalition government, however, has followed a neo-liberal course and implemented the sharpest attacks on the German working class since 1945 with the infamous 'Agenda 2010' in order to increase the profits of banks and corporations, thereby hoping to make Germany more 'competitive'.
Lafontaine to stand
AFTER SCHRÖDER'S announcement of new elections, Lafontaine stole his show by declaring that he would be prepared to stand if the two left-wing parties WASG and PDS formed an alliance for the general election.
The PDS developed out of the Stalinist ruling party in the former East Germany (DDR) and became a 'normal' reformist party after German unification. It has a mass base in the East of the country where the bulk of its 60,000 members live. In West Germany it has never been able to build a base amongst workers and youth.
While standing for 'socialism', the PDS has joined regional coalition governments with the SPD in both the eastern federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and in the capital Berlin. Here, and in many east German local councils, it has joined in attacks on workers' wages and rights, supported privatisations and social cuts. The SPD/PDS coalition in Berlin has been to the forefront of anti-trade union attacks recently.
The launch of the WASG was therefore not only a response to the neo-liberal policies of the SPD but also a reflection of the fact that many workers, unemployed and trade unionists saw the PDS as no alternative to the SPD.
Lafontaine is the only political leader who is seen as a left and has had a big impact both in west and east Germany. His demand for the WASG and PDS to act together put a lot of pressure on both parties. Opinion polls immediately showed that a left-wing alliance has an electoral potential of more than 20%.
The WASG leaders, (including a member of Linksruck, the German equivalent of the British SWP), then went silent in their criticisms of the PDS.
Rapidly they opted for an electoral alliance with the PDS without making any political conditions apart from an abstract and general opposition to neo-liberalism. In reality, the WASG leaders lacked the confidence to start fighting independently and looked for help from prominent individuals and the PDS.
For legal reasons, and in order not to put the influx of state money into the PDS in danger, the electoral construction the two leaderships agreed upon is not even a real alliance of two equal partners but simply opens the election lists of the PDS for WASG candidates. As a compensation for that the PDS will change its name into "Left Party".
AT THE beginning of July the WASG met to discuss these proposals. In the run-up to this event a controversial debate had developed within the party. This was reinforced by the fact that the leadership not only proposed to stand on the PDS/Left Party's slates but also to effectively fuse together the WASG with the PDS.
Socialist Alternative (SAV – German section of the CWI) members are an active part of the WASG. For over ten years the SAV has argued for the launch of a new combative workers' party as a broad alternative with a socialist programme to the different parties.
Right after the announcement of early elections we argued against an electoral alliance with the PDS.
We argued for the WASG leadership to put clear conditions on the PDS and stand separately if the PDS leadership is not prepared to change its course.
But Lafontaine, together with both parties' leaderships and the media, created a momentum that this was an historic chance to get a strong left-wing force into parliament and that the only possible way to seize this opportunity is by accepting to stand on the slates of the PDS/Left Party.
This meant that by the time the congress opened the decision has been taken in reality. To argue differently now would have been seen to jeopardise the prospect that any viable left-wing force could be represented in the Bundestag after the 18 September elections.
SAV members therefore did not argue at this WASG congress for an independent candidature anymore. Instead we called for an independent election campaign by the WASG for the candidates of this electoral alliance with the aim to continue building of the WASG as an independent political party.
We said that an important element of such a campaign must be the principled opposition against any form of social cuts, privatisation, wage cuts and redundancies on any level. This means not keeping silent about the PDS's concrete policy in many regions.
We also argued against a fusion with this PDS and against a decision on that question before a broad discussion has taken place within the WASG.
THE WASG congress was opened by Oskar Lafontaine who gave a combative anti-government speech which lead to big applause and standing ovations at the end.
But he did not comment on a recent statement where he spoke about the possibility of forming a coalition with the SPD and even a joint party in a few years time when the Schröder-era is over.
There was a lot of controversy recently about a speech that Lafontaine had given at a mass rally in Chemnitz. There he had said that the "state has to protect family fathers and women from foreign workers who take away their jobs".
In his congress speech he correctly said it is not migrant workers who are responsible for low wages and unemployment but the bosses. But he did not put forward any programme for the unity of the working class and implicitly supported closed borders as a means of protecting jobs in Germany.
Only SAV member Angela Bankert came out with a clear criticism of Lafontaine for these positions in her contribution in the debate. She called for the united struggle of all workers against the bosses and said that any implication that migrants and asylum-seekers take responsibility for mass unemployment is wrong.
At the end of the congress the proposed election manifesto by the national committee was narrowly passed.
SAV members had drafted an alternative manifesto that was passed by the Kassel WASG albeit with a number of modifications. Despite these changes it was still a much more combative text with more radical political statements. The Kassel draft received 90 votes, to the national committee's 121.
In opinion polls the alliance of PDS and WASG now stands at 11%, making it the third largest political force. Previously the PDS's support was generally around 5%, showing the potential that exists with Lafontaine and the WASG. Since Schröder announced he wanted early elections 2,000 new members have joined the WASG.
SAV is ready to conduct an energetic election campaign to get as many MPs for the WASG/PDS/Left Party as possible, to build the WASG as the basis for a broad party for workers and youth and to spread the ideas of socialism and strengthen the forces of the CWI in Germany.
In The Socialist 14 July 2005: