Angela Merkel’s third election as chancellor of Germany with the victory of her center-right CDU-CSU party opens a window on the class struggle in the European Union’s most powerful economic state and the world’s fourth-largest economy.
The continued control of the German administration by Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, gives the illusion of stability. Given the German economy’s dependence on exports, however, the EU’s expected economic downturn won’t stop at the German border. This makes it unlikely Merkel’s third term will be as calm as the first eight years.
The fiction behind Merkel’s election propaganda was that her policies kept Germany’s capitalist economy growing and unemployment low, even as the economies of the EU’s Mediterranean countries were collapsing.
There is no doubt that Merkel’s performance satisfied the German ruling class. Just as in U.S. elections, the weight of ruling-class opinion and the corporate media’s influence pull the electorate toward the right. In Germany, the CDU-CSU voters even included many union members.
In Greece and Portugal, by contrast, workers hold mass protest demonstrations every time German politicians and bankers visit. They carry posters showing Merkel draped in Nazi swastikas.
Who the different parties are
Merkel’s party, a permanent partnership between the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, is roughly equivalent to the Republican Party in the U.S. Their main rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Democratic Party, though with stronger roots in the trade unions. The party now in fourth place is the Green Party, which began as a progressive environmentalist protest party but has evolved to become pro-establishment.
Although these political rivals differ on many details, they are all pro-capitalist parties that support NATO and have backed German involvement in the wars against Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan. They have also supported most of the major cuts in social welfare programs since West Germany annexed the German Democratic Republic in 1990 and the competition with the socialist camp was eliminated.
Another party in basic agreement on these issues — but pushing for tax cuts for the bosses — is the pro-laissez-faire Free Democrats (FDP), which for the first time in its history did not get the 5 percent of votes needed to win seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag.
The only party in the Bundestag that opposes war, NATO membership and the social cuts is the Left (Die Linke), which came in third. Die Linke also expresses solidarity with workers’ struggles in Greece and Portugal.
A new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), campaigned against “helping” Greece and other countries in Europe’s South avoid bankruptcy and also against supporting the euro throughout Europe. Such a program would in reality reduce German exports to other EU countries and reduce the profits of German industries and banks. The AfD, whose future is uncertain, got nearly enough votes, representing isolationist sentiment, to enter the Bundestag.
Even though the CDU-CSU gained 72 seats in this election, the loss of 93 FDP seats left Merkel without a coalition partner and five seats short of a majority. She will need to form either a “grand coalition” with the SPD or a normal majority coalition with the Greens. Rivalries among these parties complicate each solution.
None of the three pro-imperialist parties in the Bundestag has offered to build a coalition with Die Linke, nor has Die Linke asked to join one. Participation in any national government would quickly cost Die Linke its role as an anti-war and pro-worker pole of attraction.
Germany’s true role in the world today was exposed by a former president — a mostly ceremonial post — whose frank comment resulted in his forced resignation in mid-2010. After visiting German troops in Afghanistan, Horst Köhler told the media that “a country of our size, with … dependence on foreign trade, has to be aware that … military deployment is also necessary to protect our interests.” (The Local, May 27, 2010)
Köhler thus revealed that Germany, now the second-largest exporter behind China, had to risk the lives of its youth by joining U.S.-led military adventures, not to serve some “humanitarian” goal, but to maintain its share of imperialist plunder worldwide.
Within the EU, Germany is the most powerful industrial and banking center. Germany’s bosses have kept their competitive edge not through Merkel’s genius or German ingenuity, but by lowering wages and expanding inequality at home while controlling the European currency.
In the Sept. 3 Financial Times, Adam Posen, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote: “Since 2003 a falling unemployment rate [now 5.3 percent in Germany] has been the consequence of the creation of a large number of low-wage and part-time or flex-time jobs, without the benefits and protections afforded earlier postwar generations. Germany now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers relative to the national median income in western Europe.”
German capitalists, unconstrained as there is no national minimum wage, also pay wages far lower than German standards for foreign guest workers hired for temporary jobs, such as those in slaughterhouses or — as more recently in the news — working at Amazon during the holiday rush. As the current strike wave at Amazon shows, the class struggle is alive and well in Germany.
Elections in imperialist countries at most can only reflect — distorted as in a funhouse mirror — the political consciousness of the population. The German election showed a rightward shift, although this too was contradicted by a poll in which a majority backed a national minimum wage, which the SDP supports.
During the election campaign, the pro-capitalist parties in Germany avoided discussing the big economic changes looming in Europe and the world. The changes themselves are unavoidable, and neither they nor the class struggle will stop at Germany’s borders.