Probably Not what Willy Brandt imagined

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many observers expected the German Social Democrats (SPD) to become Germany’s leading political party again, as it had been during the Weimar Republic, and much of Wilhelm II’s reign. But in the first (and last) free elections in the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, in 1990, the Christian Democrats (CDU) came in first.

German Unification

Fulda Gap, 2009

Later that same year, the CDU with the incumbent chancellor Helmut Kohl won the first elections in united Germany. The candidate of the defeated SPD back then was Oskar Lafontaine, now co-chairman of “The Left”. It wasn’t before 1998 that the SPD lead a federal government again, after sixteen years in the opposition. Gerhard Schroeder became chancellor, Lafontaine, then the SPD’s chairman, became finance minister with unusual powers, some of which had before been in the jurisdiction of the ministry of economics. But even though the SPD didn’t begin the real reforms of the welfare state (known as the Agenda 2010) before 2003, he resigned his party and government functions after less than half a year in office. In 2005, after the Agenda 2010 had been implemented, he switched to the Left Party and has since campaigned against the SPD.after the SPD’s election victory.

The Left Party and its growth would be hardly conceivable without the PDS, the legal successor to East Germany’s former dictatorial party SED.  The PDS merged with Western voter blocks (mostly former Social Democrats and trade unionists) in 2005. One might say that the PDS was the propellant of the left’s successful participation in elections in East and West Germany, while the Western voter blocks it merged with helped it to gain real influence in the old Federal Republic.

Oskar Lafontaine is often, and arguably correctly, suspected of having left the SPD for injured vanity. He narrowly lost the 1998 nomination, and consequently the chance to become chancellor, to Gerhard Schröder. He has haunted the SPD ever since 2005, and acted as a potential Papa Christmas to everyone who feels that the SPD has become “anti-social”. One might say that in 1990, the SPD was shy with German unification, Lafontaine was vocally against it, and Willy Brandt, former chancellor and the SPD’s honorary chairman, supported it.

Why does an alliance between the SPD and the Left look unfeasible? With combined forces, they could have formed government coalition in 2005.  Instead, the SPD chose to be the Christian Democrats (plus their Bavarian CSU sister party‘s) junior coalition partner. And this year, many SPD voters probably stayed at home because they saw no chance for their party to govern again – certainly not as the leading party in federal government. Willy Brandt, when making his case for German unification, probably wouldn’t have dreamed of the SPD’s troubles today – not in his worst nightmares.

Animosities between the SPD and Lafontaine, viewed as a selfish renegade, may play a role in the inability of the  two parties to join forces. So may Afghanistan. The Left wants the German army to withdraw at once. Then there are historical grudges. The PDS’s legal predecessor in East Germany had been a  merger enforced between East Germany’s social democrats and communists, forced upon the SPD in Soviet-occupied territories by the Soviets and the East German communists. The SPD ceased to exist there, and only continued to exist in West Germany. But the main reason for the rift is that the Left is a pool of protestors, rather than of politicians who would try to reform the welfare state in order to make it sustainable. Take the Agenda 2010. Before it came into effect, a department manager aged, say, forty-five, who lost his job, could count on 53 to 57% of his last earned income – paid with the taxpayers’ money, with no time limit, except for reaching the age where he could claim pensions.

The reforms by the Schroeder government, from 2003 to 2005, weren’t entirely fair. But compared to welfare in America or Britain, they spell luxury – and one may argue that they were fair to the taxpayers, lower and middle incomes included.

The SPD is now the strongest oppositional party in federal parliament. The Left is its main competitor there. The SPD may choose to remain a party which wants to reform the welfare state, in order to maintain it. It may also choose to become more populist, to take votes from the Left. In many East German federal states, it is only the third-strongest party after the Christian Democrats and the Left. But it is the strongest party – and the main governing party – in Brandenburg, an Eastern German state after all. It’s prime minister or Minister-President there is Mathias Platzeck who stood his party’s ground in Brandenburg’s 2004 elections, right in the middle of the Agenda 2010 brawl. He didn’t apologize for the Agenda, and he didn’t distance himself from it. He won in Brandenburg in 2004 by defending the Agenda. Last night, Brandenburg’s SPD won yet another term, against the federal trend.

I hope that the SPD will take a shot of courage from there. Opportunism isn’t the answer to its calamities. Germany needs a true left, which finds a balance between a competitive economy, and social justice (sometimes a pretty shopworn concept). Mere protesters can’t do that. It will take politicians. It will take a party like the SPD. That, the courage to argue  rather than to make hollow promises, and nerves of steel.

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