The results of the 20th German federal election on 26 September show a continuing process of polarisation in Germany. Public opinion has never been so volatile, voters have never been so undecided, and parliament has never been so fragmented. The bourgeois-democratic political system of Germany is in crisis, but no class-struggle alternative was to be found in this election.
The outstanding losers of this election are the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and their candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet. The CDU achieved its worst result in a federal election ever. It ended up with just 18.9% of the vote. With 5.2%, the CSU only just cleared the 5% hurdle. The CDU/CSU received 24.1% of the votes, a fall of 8.9 points.
The Social Democracy (SPD) was able to increase its share by 5.2% compared to the previous election but nonetheless, this was its third-worst result in a federal election. The SPD is now able to once more nominate a chancellor after four legislative periods. The liberal Green Party also made strong gains, although they did not come close to their temporary peak of 28% in the opinion polls. With 14.8% (+5.8%) of the vote, they have emerged as the third strongest force. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) also emerged slightly stronger from the election with 11.5%.
In addition to the CDU, the racist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the left party DIE LINKE in particular lost votes. The AfD achieved 10.3% (-2.3%) but was able to stabilise its voter base. DIE LINKE, meanwhile, fell short of the 5%-hurdle with 4.9%. It almost halved its election result compared to the last general election. It was only able to re-enter the Bundestag (parliament) as a parliamentary group thanks to winning three direct mandates.
8.7% voted for other parties that did not enter the Bundestag. At 76.6%, voter turnout was the same as in the last election. Almost 15 million eligible voters did not vote. The non-voters are thus the largest ‘party’. In addition, there are 9.5 million people of voting age with foreign citizenship or stateless persons in Germany who were not allowed to vote.
A shaky victory for the SPD
This election campaign was more apolitical than ever before. Yet there was no shortage of issues that needed to be discussed, e.g. climate change, especially after the disastrous July floods, the Covid-19-pandemic, the economic crisis, etc. The focus was instead on a personality contest between parties, as none of the parties could offer the population a real solution. Their programmes differed only marginally from each other. The personal approval ratings of the parties’ candidates for chancellor were therefore decisive for their parties’ performances.
For a long time, it appeared as though these elections would resolve into a race between the Greens and the CDU/CSU, with various factions of capital throwing their weight behind these parties. A dirty media battle for first place ensued. For example, there was discussion across the media over such non-issues as mistakes in candidates’ CVs; a book by the Green top candidate Annalena Baerbock; and the way Laschet laughed whilst Federal President Steinmeier of the SPD gave a speech following the disastrous flooding in July. But the bourgeois strategists obviously overestimated how stable support for the Greens and CDU/CSU was. This media campaign was met with general resentment and mistrust among the population towards the parties and politicians, fuelled by years of false promises. Laschet and Baerbock both ended up being burnt by the media.
At the same time, candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz (SPD), was able to gain in popularity, thus strengthening the SPD. He benefited from simply not being one of the other two candidates, and from the fact that after four legislative periods with the CDU at the helm, the general mood was to prevent another CDU-led government. Scholz was the lesser evil with the greatest chance of winning.
However, upswing for the SPD in the election does not mean a reversal of the crisis in which it has been mired for decades. Scholz did not win because of the SPD’s programme. There was no movement towards the SPD in the form of a boost in membership. There was no mood of enthusiasm as there was, for example, in Martin Schulz's (SPD) 2017 campaign when social issues took centre stage. The SPD will only enjoy a brief respite in its ongoing crisis.
Who will get the biggest piece of the pie?
A prolonged phase of government formation is probably ahead. The two liberal parties, the Greens and the FDP, want to ‘pre-negotiate’ after their disagreement in 2017 prevented them from having a slice of the government pie. The parties are now laying out their core stances for negotiations over ministerial posts. Scholz is counting on a ‘traffic-light-coalition’ (on account of the party colours of the SPD, FDP and Greens). As the winner of the election, the SPD formally enjoys the right to take the chancellorship. But a coalition of the Greens and FDP with the CDU/CSU also cannot be ruled out in theory. The Greens and FDP, therefore, hold a strong negotiating position.
For its part, the CDU/CSU is not ruling out the possibility of leading a government. It is flirting with a so-called ‘Jamaica-coalition’ (CDU/CSU-FDP-Greens). In fact, a CDU-led government is very unlikely. Another legislative period in which it introduces unpopular measures would plunge the CDU/CSU into a much deeper crisis. From the point of view of capital, it would be better for the party to be given time to ‘recover’ in opposition.
Moreover, a ‘Jamaica-coalition’ would not succeed in giving the impression that social progress is on the order of the day. It would make it more difficult for both the parties involved and for the capitalist class to secure the social support they need for the forthcoming measures in favour of the ruling class. Such a coalition would be extremely unpopular and untrustworthy for workers and youth from day one.
In all probability, we will see a new government formed of a ‘traffic-light-coalition’, comprising the SPD, Greens and FDP. To the public, it will sell itself as a ‘social-ecological-liberal’ bloc aiming to address the pressing social problems. In reality, this government will resort to unpopular measures, just like the red-green government did in the early 2000s.
To begin with, however, it would be easier for this coalition to maintain the illusion that it would be a government that would deliver climate protection, social reform and technological progress. A government in which the majority of the population have illusions is precisely what the ruling class needs, which is why representatives of the German bourgeoisie like the head of the textile company Trigema, Wolfgang Grupp, want to give the SPD the lead and assume that it will act ‘responsibly’, i.e. in the interest of the bourgeoisie. The inclusion of the FDP in particular, as the party most directly representative of the interests of capital, would ensure that substantial improvements in the living conditions of the working class are struck out of the programme of such a ‘traffic-light-coalition’.
Crisis in all parties
Meanwhile, in the CDU/CSU, the conflict that had already reached a climax in the power struggle between Laschet (CDU) and Söder (CSU) for candidacy as chancellor a few months ago, is once more picking up speed. Various rumours are surfacing. For instance, the idea has been floated that Söder should lead coalition negotiations and seek to become chancellor. Again, Saxony’s Prime Minister, Kretschmer (CDU), has spoken out against any CDU claim to government. Norbert Röttgen (CDU), meanwhile, has alluded to the idea of renewing personnel in the party. How long Laschet can hold on as federal leader of the CDU? How long it takes for the latent power struggle to break out will depend on how long these coalition negotiations drag out and on how realistic a coalition involving the CDU is likely to be in the first place. At any rate, a deepening of the CDU’s crisis is in the offing.
The AfD has been able to consolidate itself overall and to rally around itself a base of voters who approve of the party’s demagogic and racist direction. In Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, it won a total of 16 direct mandates. But the AfD has also suffered losses and this is intensifying conflict between its different wings. The conflict over the course of the party will continue and will weaken it. Jörg Meuthen has already expressed criticism of the party's course at a press conference with the top candidate duo, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla. Moreover, the AfD's result shows that it has nothing to offer except demagogy and racism and thus cannot currently achieve success comparable to the FPÖ in Austria or the Rassemblement National in France.
Above all, the FDP and the Greens were able to win among young people and new voters. For a large part of the youth, the climate crisis is an election-critical issue. Many still have hopes and illusions in the Greens. But the Greens will not be able to stop the climate crisis with their programme. The FDP, on the other hand, with its focus on “freedom”, “digitalisation” and “innovation”, was able to score points with many young and new voters. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the problems that exist in schools and universities alone. The FDP won’t be able to alter this, because it relies on tax breaks for the rich, whilst at the same time standing for reducing the state debt. It will not contribute to investments on the scale necessary in education or elsewhere. The illusions of the youth in these two parties will not last long. And as these illusions are shattered, so too will the electoral success of these parties.
The centre strengthened?
Parliament is even more fragmented than it was after the last election. If we look at voter migration between the parties, the social base of the CDU/CSU and SPD are dwindling. A large part of the SPD’s vote is made up of voters switching from other parties. The CDU/CSU, on the other hand, still holds a somewhat larger share of core voters, while it has lost heavily to other parties. Both parties also have an ageing electorate, further undermining their social base.
Until the 1990s, the CDU/CSU and SPD were able to garner over 80% of the vote. Coalitions were mainly formed with the FDP by one party or the other. It was not until the federal election in 1998 that a coalition was formed between the SPD and the Greens. The fragmentation process of the so-called political ‘centre’ began in earnest in Germany in the 2000s.
Increasing voter migration shows that society is becoming politicised and that the CDU/CSU and SPD are no longer the only points of reference for those looking for answers to social problems. The parties that are currently making gains – the Greens and the FDP – will not provide answers to the crisis of capitalism, and as such they will encounter tremendous problems in building a strong social base.
The so-called ‘fringes’ may have lost this election, but the centre was not strengthened. The right-wing AfD and the left party, DIE LINKE, were both unable to prove that they were alternatives to the status quo. The centre, however, is disintegrating. While the SPD and the CDU/CSU are in decline, the FDP, the Greens are only intermediate stations in the process of politicisation and polarisation.
Why this development?
The basis of the crisis of the political system is the general worldwide crisis of capitalism and its social consequences. This crisis began in the 1970s and has slowly been creeping forward. From the 1970s onwards, in Germany unemployment began to grow and reached 11% in 2005, the highest unemployment rate ever. At the same time, investment decreased as a proportion of gross domestic product. The capitalist class in Germany and its state apparatus are set on a policy of cutbacks to protect their interests, to stifle the crisis of overproduction and to increase their profits.
A decisive turning point was the so-called ‘Agenda 2010’ and other counter-reforms in the early 2000s, which were pushed through under the red-green government then led by Gerhard Schröder (SPD). These attacks had drastic consequences for the living and working conditions of the working class and, above all, they increased exploitation.
As a result, the low-wage sector grew, affecting a consistent 24% of insured employees since 2011. Atypical employment has increased: More than 8 million workers work part-time hours. Another 7 million are marginally employed. Temporary work, bogus self-employment, zero-hour contracts and fixed-term employment have increased enormously. More than 60% of employees under the age of 35 are employed on a fixed-term basis.
The expansion of this atypical employment has reduced unemployment – there was record employment of 45 million recorded in 2019 – but at the same time the wage share stood at the same level as in 2000. This means that the wages as a portion of GDP was no greater in 2019 than at the beginning of the millennium, despite a significant increase in the number of people in employment. Exploitation has increased drastically.
The consequence is rising inequality. In Germany, inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, has grown by 19.3% between 2010 and 2019, and according to the 6th Poverty and Wealth Report by the government, is already at 0.81. Germany is thus one of the most unequal countries in the world.
This class polarisation between the working class – which has less and less although it works and produces more and more – and the capitalist class – which is getting richer and richer because exploitation is increasing so much – is the basis for the social and political instability that has now finally arrived in Germany. Class polarisation also leads to political polarisation, as people begin to question the existing order and look for a solution to their personal and social problems.
The end of the Merkel era
There have been many crises since the 2000s, although the Merkel era, beginning with her ascent to the chancellorship in 2005, is usually presented as a period of stability. The biggest crises were the financial crisis, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis and the Covid-19-pandemic. She was only able to endure these on account of being very nimble in adapting her positions on various issues according to the circumstances, and above all to fit the interests and needs of the capitalists.
In the euro crisis, the German government was particularly keen to make an example of Greece in order to consolidate Germany’s political dominance and keep the EU together. In the refugee crisis, she suddenly adopted a humanist tone and spoke out in favour of rescuing some of the refugees. This was necessary on account firstly of the solidarity the vast majority of the population felt for the refugees, but an influx of refugees was also felt to be very convenient by the capitalists as potential wage depressors in a time of relative upswing. Up until that point, Merkel had taken the stance that “multicultural society had failed”, that Muslims were unwilling to integrate, and that mandatory integration into “German culture” for migrants. After the temporary resolution of the refugee crisis, she reverted to pursuing a xenophobic policy.
With major upheavals impending in international politics: with economic conflict between the USA, China and the EU; competition for industrial digitisation; rising tensions in the EU; the climate crisis, as well as the economic consequences of the pandemic policies, the coming federal government will find itself with far fewer stable pillars upon which to rest. It will destroy whatever illusions exist in it, and the masses will be left with a bitter feeling that all the parties are as bad as each other. This will only exacerbate the crisis of all the parties and the whole political system.
As long as there is no break with capitalism, the course of events will be determined by the crisis of capitalism and the interests of the ruling class. Attacks on the working class and the youth will increase. The policies pursued under the outgoing government during the pandemic have only reinforced this development. Most of the money distributed by central banks and the government went to big corporations to save their profits. These measures have so far amounted to 39% of GDP. The working class will have to pay for this at some point, not to mention the cost of the climate crisis.
The crisis of the trade unions
These problems can only be solved by overthrowing capitalism. But the mass organisations of the labour movement are not interested in that. The leaderships of the big trade unions – Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) – have assisted in managing the crisis over past decades. There are hardly any strikes in Germany. Job cuts, factory closures, collective bargaining evasion and other attacks by the capitalist class and governments are barely resisted.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, this weakness of the trade unions became particularly evident. The trade union leadership hardly voiced any noticeable criticism of the government’s measures and did not present any alternative in the interest of the working class that might have overcome the divisions among workers. In the election campaign, they did not declare their allegiance to any party, nor did they explain how they would implement the demands they were making on the coming government.
Thus, the trade unions of the DGB also have their share of responsibility for this election outcome. Without a perspective and without a class struggle leadership from the trade unions, the polarisation of society has unfolded mainly along the limits of the bourgeois parties of the so-called ‘centre’.
Heavy defeat for DIE LINKE
DIE LINKE (‘THE LEFT’) played a similar role and therefore brought upon itself a disastrous result. The co-chairwoman of DIE LINKE, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, commented along the lines that the party’s results were a consequence of its past mistakes. We can certainly agree with this assessment. The fact that Ms Hennig-Wellsow is at the head of the party is itself an expression of the party’s mistakes. With her at the helm, DIE LINKE’s course of class collaboration was clearly accelerated.
The defeat of DIE LINKE is the result of the severe weakening of its roots in the labour movement and especially the trade unions. This was accompanied by the party consistently flirting with the SPD and the Greens, and an ensuing rightward shift in the party programme. This is particularly starkly illustrated in the ‘immediate programme’ of the two top candidates, Dietmar Bartsch and Janine Wissler. The programme purged any features that distinguished DIE LINKE in advance in the hope of becoming part of a red-red-green coalition (SPD-LINKE-Greens). The party’s surrender of any programme of real social reforms in the interest of the working class in the course of this election campaign was the decisive factor in ensuring such a defeat for DIE LINKE.
The question is now: how will this election defeat be discussed and evaluated at the grassroots level? The crisis of DIE LINKE will come to a head after this election debacle, and for the time being there exists no opposition faction capable of taking up the struggle for a genuine socialist programme. The party’s base is largely inactive and is lacking a perspective. Reformist currents, of various shades and hue, are all that exist in the leadership and in the apparatus of the party – and all of them are responsible for the election outcome and the general trajectory of the party. A left party that refrains from presenting itself as a serious, radical alternative, and that programmatically aligns itself with the larger social-democratic party, is superfluous and necessarily unconvincing.
What is needed is a socialist programme – a firm orientation towards the working class and its struggles, and the building of real structures in workplaces, trade unions and neighbourhoods. In short, what is needed is a party that really stands up for social improvements, against austerity policies and attacks by capital and government, i.e. a party that really stands for an alternative, that is seen as such, and that can win over a majority of workers to its programme.
Class struggle ahead
One of the most important struggles that could easily be connected to an overall socialist programme, is the successful ‘Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen’ referendum, in which residents voted to expropriate the property of private real-estate companies in Berlin. This referendum was built for more than two years by a grassroots movement and won 56% of votes in favour compared to 38% voted against. This is a groundbreaking expression of the mood in Berlin. But it is also telling about the mood in society in general. A majority is open to a working-class position on private property and is in favour of expropriating the landlords and housing fat cats.
The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis and climate change both require a revolutionary solution by the working class. More than 40 percent of the population want fundamental change. They are afraid of climate change, and they fear that their standard of living is under threat. Most of the population regard the distribution of wealth in Germany as unjust. On the basis of this mood, a real working-class alternative must be built. Only a socialist programme can solve the problems faced by working people and youth.
The next government will be a crisis government. It has the task of uniting a majority of the population behind a crisis programme that will run against the interests of the working class. The parties are already unpopular or enjoy little trust among the people. This will lead to outbursts of protest and the undermining of the government, the bourgeois parties and the political system as a whole.
The class struggle in the next period will therefore intensify, and many will draw anti-capitalist conclusions. We invite all who see the need for a class struggle alternative to join us and build the International Marxist Tendency with us. We are building a strong Marxist revolutionary current in the labour movement and youth to finally overthrow this system.