The Guardian 13 July, 2005

In Berlin,
a weird vote and an old spectre

Victor Grossman

BERLIN: Weird was the best way to describe German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's tactic: to urge his parliament to vote "no confidence" in his own government. He succeeded. Now, if President Horst Koehler goes along, Schroeder will get what he sought — new elections in September, a year earlier than required.

The comic aspect of what looked like political suicide was that every party in the Bundestag, if for very different reasons, agreed that the present coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens should be voted out.

The "opposition" — right-wing Christian Democrats and the small allied Free Democrats — want to get back into power. A majority of Social Democrats and Greens reluctantly voted "no confidence" because Schroeder told them to. Having lost one state election after another, Schroeder now hopes for a new chance. If not a victory next September, then perhaps a "grand alliance" with the Christian Democrats and without any Greens.

All the party leaders made moving speeches. Schroeder said he did not want to continue his great "reform program" without the confidence of the voters and his own party. His opponents pointed out that this "reform program" had thus far resulted in unemployment levels unmatched since World War II. While they didn't say so openly, many want even harsher cuts in social gains won by working people over many decades.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, representing the Greens, loudly lambasted the Free Democrats. He knows new elections will almost certainly push his party out of government positions they have been sharing with Schroeder's team.

So they all blasted away at each other, without dwelling on the fact that they had all basically agreed on the whole brutal strategy.

Amazingly, this situation was caused by the same old spectre which has been haunting Europe for around a century and a half. Or at least by its cousin. According to old Karl Marx in 1848, the spectre was communism.

The new variant is not exactly that. Gesine Lötsch, one of the Party of Democratic Socialism's (PDS) two Bundestag representatives, did not call for communism or even socialism. But she did use her limited speaking time to attack both sides of the chamber and their whole joint policy of chopping away at the rights and incomes of the working people and favouring the super-wealthy, so as to "attract investments" and "keep jobs in Germany".

This strategy could only be a flop, she said: a new election would make it possible to have a real left opposition after September in the next Bundestag. The other deputies usually tune-out speeches by the PDS. But this time they listened, fearing her words might come true. Hardly one speaker from the ruling or would-be ruling parties failed to mention this possibility, or what they called a "populist menace" — a word they use to lump it together with the neo-Nazi menace.

Their fears are caused by current talks on combining the PDS with the new Election Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG). The former, the greatly altered offspring of the ruling party in the former German Democratic Republic, often gets 25 percent and more of the eastern vote, but so little in the west that in the last election it could not meet the requirements for proper representation in the Bundestag.

The new WASG consists of left-wing Social Democrats, local union militants, some Greens and assorted groups such as Trotskyists. In a state election in May they got over two percent of the vote, not large, but a fair start.

Since they are stronger in western Germany, even this amount, plus the PDS' East German votes, could put them all into the Bundestag. In fact, present opinion polls give such a new coalition 8 percent to 11 percent of the national vote.

But many issues remain unresolved. Should the new alliance be forged only for this one election? Should it result within a few years in a single party? What should it stand for, and who should be the candidates? And what should it be called? PDS?The Left? Democratic Left? Is it politically viable?

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