Germany: Left Party Makes Breakthrough in the West

Bremen's S.P.D. mayor Jens Boehrnsen (front) must now decide whether he wants to continue his party's 12-year-old alliance with its traditional rivals, the C.D.U., or link up with the Greens. (Photo: David Hecker / AFP-Getty Images)

On May 13, the Left party won 8.4 percent of the votes in Germany's smallest state, the adjoining northwestern cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven. This was sufficient for the party to enter a west German state parliament for the first time, with seven M.P.'s.

The Bremen result could be a breakthrough for a party to the left of the German Social Democrats (S.P.D.) for the first time in western Germany since the 1950's.

Bremen is a city of some 600,000 inhabitants. With its shipbuilding and metal industries, it became a stronghold of the S.P.D. left wing, led by Rosa Luxemburg, in the early years of the last century.

At the end of World War I, Bremen was, with Brunswick and Munich, one of three cities with a short-lived workers' and soldiers' council (soviet) republic.

After World War II, S.P.D. hegemony in Bremen was nearly total for a very long time. As in all of West Germany, the Communist Party lost more and more members due to the police-state image of Stalinist East Germany and was finally declared illegal in 1956.

When in the wake of the youth radicalization at the end of the 1960's, the Communist Party was re-founded, it was again in Bremen where it scored highest in any election, but failed to reach the undemocratic 5 percent hurdle for the election of any parliamentary representative.

Later, Bremen was the first city where the Greens were elected into a German parliament. Even the P.D.S. (Party of Democratic Socialism) that emerged in 1990 from the ruins of the Socialist Unity Party, the ruling Stalinist party in East Germany, had its first branch in western Germany formed by some seafarers and students in Bremen.

During the 1970's and 80's, Bremen was an El Dorado of the "counter culture." The smallest critical movements and initiatives were taken up and financed by state S.P.D. government, sometimes even before they had sprung up spontaneously.

As a result of the anti-worker, neoliberal "free market" policies embraced by the S.P.D. leadership, thousands of jobs have been eliminated in Bremen in recent years. A number of large shipyards have closed, including Bremen Vulkan and AG Weser.

Shop-floor leaders of every former strand of socialism were co-opted into the government-sponsored structures. Workers' representatives went so far as to organize lay-offs in a smooth way for the bosses. This process is still going on, including at the DaimlerChrysler auto factory, which with 15,000 employees is the city's largest private employer, and at Airbus' Bremen plant, which employs 3,000 people.

Unemployment has soared in Bremen state. In March, there were 36,000 unemployed people registered in Bremen, a rate of 11.2 percent. In Bremerhaven, the official unemployment rate is 13.3 percent.

Academic researchers estimate that 300,000 people in Bremen lived under or close to the poverty line, with half of them living on social welfare payments.

The resulting discontent among working-class families formed the backdrop to the establishment in 2004 of the W.A.S.G. (Voting Alternative for Work and Social Justice) and its founding as a party in early 2005.

The P.D.S. had been in a political stalemate in western Germany, and in Bremen, for years. The new W.A.S.G. was proving to be much more attractive to leftist-minded people. It was a hotbed of internal struggles which, to the surprise of the taunting capitalist media—and to the surprise of its own leaders—made it stronger. While membership of W.A.S.G. fell in other parts of western Germany after it became clear a fusion with the P.D.S. was on the way, it grew in Bremen.

The P.D.S., with its money and apparatus, wanted to control the whole process and remained intransigent toward all ideas and moves to guarantee equal rights for both parties and their members. The P.D.S. stance was supported by the majority of W.A.S.G. leadership, coming from the trade-union bureaucracy.

There was also a political dividing line—not exactly between the two parties—on the question of participating in governments. The P.D.S. has been willing to implement even neoliberal policies where it is in a coalition government with the S.P.D., for example in Berlin state.

In Bremen, layer after layer of the W.A.S.G. membership became aware of the character of the P.D.S. W.A.S.G. nominated its top candidate for the May elections against the will of the national leadership—long-haired "Karl Marx of Bremen," as he was denounced by the media, Peter Erlanson, a delegate of the hospital workers. The media campaign against him made him popular on the streets.

Political life in Bremen and in the whole nation made a left shift on May 13. The S.P.D. received 36.8 percent of the votes—a decline of 5.5 percent. The Christian Democratic Union, the S.P.D.'s right-wing coalition partner in the federal government, won 25.6 percent, a decline of 4.1 percent. The Greens, however, received 16.4 percent, up from 12.8 percent in the 2003 state election.

It is likely there will be an S.P.D.-Green coalition government in Bremen again, lifting the lid on eight years of "grand" coalition between the S.P.D. and the Christian Democrats.

While this is not likely to change the pro-capitalist direction of government policy in Bremen, the employer class has been alarmed by the possible establishment of parliamentary factions of the Left party in other German states in the 2008 elections.

If the Bremen result was only in the electoral arena, then it would not be so significant. But the success of W.A.S.G. and the P.D.S. as the Left party occurs against the background of the heating up of the class struggle throughout Germany.

Workers in nearly all the branches of industry are on the move. The repressive state measures against the international protests at the Group of 8 summit in June are already being met with defiance. Terrorism hysteria does not wash with the public anymore. So we are looking forward to a future with more surprising developments in Germany.

From Green Left Weekly.