Germany: discontent below the surface

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At first glance Angela Merkel has won a brilliant victory in last month's German election. The vote of her conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU rose from 33.8 percent in 2009 to 41.5 percent. However, they cannot continue to govern in coalition with the neoliberal FDP - its share of the vote dropped by almost 10 percent to 4.8 percent. As a result, the FDP lost all its MPs as they didn't cross the 5 percent threshold.

The resounding success of the CDU needs explaining. It is the only governing party in Europe that has achieved such a result in recent years. Merkel's central message was, "Under my leadership Germany has come through the financial crisis better than most countries. Unemployment has fallen. Germany has become a 'locomotive' of economic growth in the global economy."

The truth is rather different. Although unemployment has fallen to its lowest point since 1992, the devil is in the detail. The number of full time jobs has fallen over the last 15 years. The number of workers on low wages increased rapidly so that now almost one in four live below the poverty line. More people are working, but for fewer hours and worse pay.

So why does Merkel remain popular? The answer lies not in her strengths but in the weakness of the SPD and the Greens. Despite adopting a fairly left wing manifesto, the SPD convinced few people that it had changed its spots. Its candidate, Peer Steinbruck, served as finance minister in the "grand coalition" when the SPD and the CDU governed together.

Steinbruck and the SPD failed to enthuse working class voters despite proposing a wealth tax, a minimum wage of 8.50 euros an hour, and to fix Agenda 2010 (a fierce attack on the welfare state and working conditions introduced by the SPD in 2004). The SPD did see a small rise in its vote, but it was still its second worst result since 1949.

The Greens also fared badly, down from 10.7 percent to 8.4 percent. Like the SPD, they tacked left for the election -promising a wealth tax and a decent minimum wage. The issues they raised have long been the sole preserve of Die Linke (Left Party). The poor result for the Greens has led to a fierce debate within the party about its future direction, with the right emerging stronger.

Die Linke did lose votes compared to the last election, but less than most were predicting. Its share fell from 11.9 percent to 8.6 percent, giving it 64 seats. Its biggest losses were in eastern Germany. In the west it held up better, averaging 5 percent. This is because in recent years Die Linke has been active in a variety of social and political fights. So, for example, in the Hesse region, Die Linke received the support of 13 percent of first time voters. The radical left within the party, grouped around Marx21, increased their number of MPs from two to three.

The real winner of the election is the UKIP-style AfD (Alternative for Germany). It was only founded a few months ago and this was its first real electoral test and it only narrowly missed getting some MPs. Its entire campaign was focused on attacking the European Union. One of its posters bore the slogan "The Greeks suffer, the Germans pay, the banks profit." It won 340,000 votes from people who had previously supported Die Linke.

But its leaders come from a right-wing milieu. Both the AfD's manifesto and social base are similar to UKIP's. And like Nigel Farage it has been careful with its language, and avoided using explicitly racist rhetoric during the campaign. Since the election its opinion poll ratings have risen to 6 percent. It will take a miracle to stop it getting elected to the European Parliament next year.

That miracle could be Die Linke, but only if it sharpens up its criticism of the European Union while emphasising its internationalism. The former leader of the party, Oskar Lafontaine, made a sharp critique of the euro in June. The party executive had a go at him for this. In the election campaign the party did not produce a single poster about the euro crisis and nor was there any critique of the AfD. That must change quickly. Otherwise, with its populist nationalism, the AfD could win over many who want to stand up to an EU in thrall to banks and big business.

Germany is not an exception. It faces the same problems as the rest of the world. Inequality is increasing, the crisis of 2008 has not been overcome and the attempt by the both the CDU and SPD to boost the economy by driving wages down is beginning to meet its limits. At this moment the greatest obstacle to building a viable socialist alternative is the orientation of the majority in Die Linke to making it respectable and "fit to govern".

Translated by Ben Winsor