Growing economic inequality and corruption have led to huge gains by the left. Christine Buchholz writes about the successes of Die Linke, and the challenges ahead
The left in Germany was celebrating last month after making a significant breakthrough in two regional elections. The polls in Lower Saxony and Hessen saw representatives of Die Linke elected with 7.1 percent and 5.1 percent respectively. The results were major election victories for the new left party, Die Linke, in former West Germany. This initial breakthrough was followed up by 6.4 percent in the election in the city-state of Hamburg.
The election results express a shift to the left by the population as a whole - a process that has been under way for some time.
The German media had been dominated by reports on the rapid increase in social inequality. In December the magazine Der Spiegel reported that the incomes of the poorest had dropped by 13 percent since 1992, while top earners had increased their incomes over the same period by nearly a third. "It is a frightening development," the magazine concluded.
The left shift has been reinforced lately by a huge tax evasion scandal involving over a thousand top executives, celebrities and high-ranking civil servants who were paying massive amounts to a fake charity in Liechtenstein. Klaus Zumwinckel, top executive of the logistic multinational Deutsche Post had to resign due to the investigations.
Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to have private talks with top executives to remind them of their "social responsibility" and the economy minister, Michael Glos, voiced concerns that the greed of the elite is making Germany a "candidate for takeover by the left".
Naturally members and supporters of the left are elated by the headway Die Linke is making less than a year after its creation. Party leader Gregor Gysi said, "The left is taking effect. We have shifted the country to the left."
Well, that's worth a second look. Certainly the terms of the political debate have shifted. Even the conservatives are talking about social justice. That's following an electoral rout of the conservative hardliner Roland Koch, who tried to win the election with a campaign against "criminal migrant youth" and failed miserably.
The winner of the election in Hessen, apart from Die Linke, was Andrea Ypsilanti, who is from the left of the social democrat party, the SPD. Ypsilanti critisised the neoliberal Agenda 2010 reforms programme started by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder. By her leftward lurch she managed to gain votes for the SPD for the first time in years. On a national level the SPD is bending over backwards to heal the post Agenda 2010 rift with the trade unions by supporting the demand for a minimum wage.
But left rhetoric isn't the equivalent of left politics. Actually the main trajectory of German politics hasn't changed. The government - consisting of a "great coalition" between the SPD and the conservatives - just decided, under pressure from the US, to deepen German involvement in Afghanistan, despite a majority in the population supporting a withdrawal this year.
At the same time the bosses are calling for a renewed attack on the welfare state in anticipation of gloomier times for the world economy. German growth is dependant solely on exports into a growing world economy - a recession in the US or even a dent in its growth would hit the German economy disproportionately.
Even now the financial crisis is having a direct effect. So far three state owned banks - Sachsen LB, Bayern LB and West LB - and a private bank, IKB, have been bailed out with taxpayers' money. The government will try to fill the public finances hole by cutting social services and attacking the public sector.
The left now faces the task of translating electoral victories into real victories against neoliberalism. Die Linke needs to focus on campaigns for the minimum wage and the withdrawal of the German troops from Afghanistan, while at the same time backing, for example, the public sector workers in their current struggle for higher wages after years of "wage restraint". The first step taken by the left was to channel the left mood and change the terms of debate - the next step is to try to change the balance of class forces on the ground.
Christine Buchholz is a member of the executive of Die Linke