No Experiments: Germany After the Election

What does Sunday's endorsement of Angela Merkel mean for Germany and its Left Party?

Keine Experimente!” — “No experiments!” — was the successful electoral slogan of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the 1957 Bundestag elections. Appealing to the precarious prosperity of West Germany’s post-war Wirtschaftswunder, it was intended to warn against votes for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), regarded as an untrustworthy wildcard within the context of Cold War and national recovery. The appeal to security and stability worked: the CDU achieved 50.2% in the elections, and obtained 55% of the seats in the Bundestag, giving it an absolute majority.

While Angela Merkel’s CDU fell just short of an absolute majority in the national elections this past Sunday, a similar appeal to stability and security was at play, and provided the conservatives with their greatest electoral victory at the national level in twenty years. In a Europe wracked by economic crisis and political turmoil, Germany has remained an island of relative stability, untouched by the crisis and even continuing a wave of economic growth. The victory of Angela Merkel’s CDU represents an affirmation of this stability and tranquility, and the desire for its maintenance.

The electoral campaign of the CDU was remarkable for its complete lack of political content. The party avoided any attempt to either brag about policy successes of the last four years of the “Black-Yellow” coalition government with the right-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), nor did it attempt to push forward any new policy initiatives or proposal for the next governing period. Instead, the campaign was focused entirely on the personality of Merkel. CDU electoral posters and billboards all featured images of the chancellor adorned with empty bromides such as “Gemeinsam erfolgreich” (“Successful together”).

Particularly characteristic of this non-political campaign was a gigantic wordless billboard at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, featuring an image of Merkel’s characteristic “Rhombus”, the chancellor’s two hands placed in front of her torso, the tips of the thumbs and fingers just barely touching, to suggest a pose of Zen-like equanimity. That’s it; that’s the entire poster; no electoral slogan, no policy suggestion, just Merkel’s finger-rhombus suggesting wisdom and stability and the letters “CDU.”

While it’s easy to poke fun at such substance-free appeals to the German electorate, it would be wrong to merely paint German voters as masochists or dupes incapable of voting in their own interests. For one thing, the SPD itself offered no real attempt to wage an aggressive electoral campaign against Merkel. Given that the SPD waved through all of the government’s euro rescue packages, it did not constitute any real opposition on this issue, and at times over the last couple of years even floated proposals that would have alienated large sectors of the electorate (such as Eurobonds, which would have strengthened the ideological perception of Germany picking up the tab for allegedly spendthrift peripheral eurozone countries).

The SPD was thus reduced to making tepid appeals to “social justice” in the form of a proposal of a legal minimum wage of 8.50 euro per hour (which as Die Linke parliamentary fraction chair Gregor Gysi has pointed out, is not even sufficient to guarantee a retirement pension above the poverty level) and attempting unsuccessfully to capitalize on the temporary prominence of the NSA spying revelations by leveling lame populist accusations against the CDU-FDP government’s selling out of “national sovereignty” (which the CDU smartly countered by pointing out that the cooperation between German and US secret services was consolidated during the years of SPD-Green rule).

The sobering truth, especially for leftists, is that German voters have in fact been taking their interests vis-à-vis the rest of Europe quite seriously, and in the face of consistently declining unemployment (ironically due to some extent to the draconian labor-market reforms by the SPD-Green coalition reigning between 1998 and 2005), and even persistent growth throughout the eurozone crisis (with prognostications of a 1.8% growth in GDP for the year 2014), Germany as the major European hegemon is in a rather privileged position in Europe as a whole, and a majority of the electorate prefers it that way.

Attempts to point out that Germany’s success rests to a considerable extent on stagnant wage levels and its beggar-thy-neighbor neo-mercantilist export strategy fall on deaf ears in a social context in which even the major industrial unions such as IG Metall and IG BCE are largely in accord with the export-oriented growth strategy of German industry. Merkel’s strategy throughout the crisis has been one of brutal austerity for the European periphery and authoritarian welfare-statism at home, achieving this triangulation by making appeals to the national mythology of Germans as a people of small savers. As the journalist and former Green Party spokesman Rainer Trampert wrote in the left-liberal weekly Jungle World:

The German fears nothing more than the loss of his savings, whether through inflation, currency reform, or confiscation such as in Cyprus. Knowing this, Angela Merkel renewed her guarantee of savings deposits up to 100,000 euro and thus achieved a small miracle . . . for Germans, a government that guarantees their savings is the greatest thing ever . . . every German knows: [Merkel] will plunder the bank accounts of all other Europeans before German savers start to feel the heat. More electoral campaigning than that is unnecessary, Germans don’t demand any more European policy than that.

Equally, if not more important, than Merkel’s verbal guarantee of small savings was the government’s policy of paying out Kurzarbeitergeld, or reduced hours compensation, during the peak of the crisis. This basically amounted to a temporary state subsidy of workers who would have otherwise become unemployed during the initial impact of the world economic crisis and subsequent eurozone crisis. By thus keeping down unemployment numbers and relieving employers financially, the CDU-FDP government was thus able to secure the consent of the governed and prevent a potentially explosive social situation, while creating a sense of “we’re-in-this-together” within the national collective. Further conjuncture measures, such as a cash-for-clunkers program and minimum wages in specific industries through collective bargaining agreements between unions and industry representatives (thus neutralizing opposition demands for a national minimum wage) have all contributed to the German working and middle classes emerging from the crisis relatively unscathed and creating a sort of “welfare-statism lite.”

All of this represents a drastic change from the Angela Merkel of 2005, who was a hardcore neoliberal figure arguing for even more drastic labor-market reforms, reforms of Germany’s health insurance system, reduced payments into the unemployment system, and an increase in the value-added tax. Such ideological neoliberalism almost cost Merkel the election in 2005, forcing her into a grand coalition with the SPD. Proving her chameleon-like adaptability, Merkel moved slightly toward the center, while allowing the SPD to weather the fall-out for more unpopular governmental measures, such as the increase of the retirement age to 67.

Merkel’s pseudo-social democratism also persisted during the period of government with the ultra-neoliberal FDP since the 2009 elections, which along with the world economic and eurozone crises rendered the FDP a sort of anachronistic fifth wheel in the German political landscape. This also explains the FDP’s catastrophic election results on Sunday. With 4.8% of the votes, the FDP did not meet the 5% threshold necessary for representation in the Bundestag, meaning that for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, the FDP will not be represented by a parliamentary fraction.

This hegemonic chauvinism of affluence has also led to a political quietism on the extra-parliamentary front. The Occupy and indignado movements bypassed Germany, aside from largely symbolic gestures such as the the “Blockupy” protests in Frankfurt, in which the usual radical and not-so-radical left suspects participated. Even with increasing wealth inequality and a rising poverty rate, Germany is still affluent compared to the rest of Europe, and the atmosphere of political passivity reflects this.

There is one major bright spot on the horizon: with 8.6% of the votes, Die Linke is not only returning to the Bundestag, but is now the third largest party within the parliament, slightly ahead of the Greens (8.4%). While the party garnered a larger share of the votes in 2009 (11.9%), that result was to a substantial extent the result of disillusionment of SPD voters with the Hartz labor market reforms of the Red-Green years and the lapdog role of the SPD as junior partner of the CDU in the years subsequent to that. Seen in that light, the 8.6% this time around represents something like the stable electoral base of Die Linke. This is also no small victory given the internal struggles within the party leading up to its convention in Göttingen in 2012.

The media played up these struggles between a radical left faction concentrated to some extent in the West and a more pragmatist, reform-oriented wing concentrated largely in the East. But the election of a more dynamic, activist-oriented leadership consisting of Bernd Riexinger, a former secretary of the service union ver.di in Stuttgart, and Katja Kipping, an Easterner who functions somewhat like a conciliator between pragmatists and more extra-parliamentary oriented activists, has quelled these internal struggles to a considerable extent.

Besides returning to the Bundestag, Die Linke also scored a considerable success by returning to the state parliament of Hesse under the leadership of party radical Janine Wissler, thus stopping the downward trend of the party in Western Länder. A cooperation with the SPD and Greens is highly unlikely both at the national level and in Hesse, given the SPD’s pathological refusal to acknowledge that Die Linke is a permanent part of the political landscape and the consequences of the SPD’s neoliberal policies during its years in government. Die Linke has also made clear that it does not seek to govern at any price, making the retraction of the Hartz reforms and an end to military interventions by the Bundeswehr part of its minimal conditions for cooperation.

For the time being, Die Linke will continue to play the role of being a placeholder for dissent against the neoliberal consensus of all other major parties, while attempting to also articulate a broadly-defined socialist politics both through its cooperation with extra-parliamentary movements (to the extent that they exist) and invaluable political education through the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which often acts as a pivot between Die Linke and the more extra-parliamentary left.