“Wealth for everyone”, Reichtum fär alle, it says on the election poster I see when I step out onto my street in central Berlin. Yet another of the satirical takeoffs that seem so popular this year? No: the gentleman in the dark three-piece suit smirking winningly from the placard is Gregor Gysi, one of the two top candidates of the Left Party. His gadfly sense of humor is well-documented, but his party and his co-candidate, Oskar Lafontaine, are notoriously free from even the lighter forms of levity, much less irony. In other words: they mean it.
Contrary to some gloomy predictions, the Left’s stridently populist calls for redistributing wealth, abolishing capitalism and raising taxes (presumably not at the same time) have not helped it to mobilize the masses even in the recent financial crisis. One month ahead of the federal election, the Left Party rates a mere 10% in nationwide polls. Chancellor Merkel’s Social Democrat challengers have categorically nixed a coalition with the Left on the national level. Not that it matters: the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), who hope to govern the country together after September 27, have been steadily outpolling the Social Democratic Union (SPD), the Greens, and the Left together since January by as much as 10 %.
But now an election campaign considered embarrassingly sleepy even by Germans has suddenly been electrified by the possibility that the Left Party might upset this balance in three state elections this Sunday: in the Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia, all of which are currently governed by Merkel’s CDU.
Fear not, Germany is not about to see its first Left Party-run regional government. But the Left might make it into a West German state government for the first time in the Saarland. It might upset the predominance of the CDU, force the SPD to choose between principles and power, and turn the Greens into Germany’s kingmaker party. Sunday’s vote could thus not just shift the country’s mood ahead of the election, but serve as a potential harbinger of future political divisions and alliances on the national level.
Saxony’s incumbent Stanislaus Tillich (a member of Germany’s tiny Sorb minority) seems safest. He may even be able to ditch his current coalition partner, the SPD, for the Liberals.
In the Saarland and in Thuringia, where the CDU currently holds an absolute majority, a power shift is possible. In both, the CDU appears set to remain the strongest party, but will no longer be able to rule without a coalition partner. In both, alas, current surveys do not promise the CDU and its preferred suitor, the FDP, the votes they would need. In Thuringia, they achieve a joint showing of 43 % (34 % + 9 %) €“ whereas the SPD, Left and Greens could muster a parliamentary majority of 49 % (19 % + 24 % + 6 %). In the Saarland, things are even less clear: the latest polls show a neck-to-neck race between the CDU and the FDP on the one hand and the SPD, Left Party and Greens on the other. But only a grand coalition of CDU and SPD (not the flavor of the month in Germany) or a “Jamaica” grouping of the CDU, Liberals and Greens (as yet untried) would actually achieve a parliamentary majority.
Remember the scene in the Bond movie Casino Royale, where spymaster M, nostrils flaring, remarks acidly: “Christ, I miss the Cold War”? Coalition-wise, those were the days, indeed. In West Germany, the Liberals could be counted on to betray their partner (CDU or SPD) every decade-and-a-half, thereby enabling the next political shift, reforms, new faces, progress, etc.. In 1983, this comfortable setup was joined by the Greens, who, however, took until 1998 to grow out of waving their knitting in the air during legislative sessions. East Germany, of course, owned moral air supremacy through Communism, thereby obviating any need for change.
But enough nostalgia, we aren’t through with the outlook for Sunday yet.
In Thuringia, the Social Democrats have intimated that they might be willing to govern the state together with the Left Party, but only if they get to nominate the state premier. The Left, for its part, has not yet made up its mind whether it would accept this if (as polls now predict) it gets more votes than the SPD. The fact that the SPD candidate, Christoph Matschie, has been happily denouncing the West German provenance of the Left’s Bodo Ramelow is unlikely to facilitate the conversations. (Thuringia is justly proud of its specialty, a large and juicy fried sausage; a CDU election poster, now withdrawn, showed R. next to one of these, accompanied by the slogan “Fake Thuringian/Real Thuringian”.)
In the Saarland, by contrast, 42-year-old Social Democrat Heiko Maas is quite willing to embrace the sulfurous Oskar Lafontaine, a man despised by most of the party stalwarts since 1999, when he walked out of his job as Chancellor Schröder’s finance minister in a hissy fit, and then out of the party. Later, he co-founded the Left Party. The Greens, for their part, are still being coy €“ but that may look different on Sunday evening.
There are several reasons why the CDU is losing ground in all three states. Chancellor Merkel’s presidential management style has kept her popularity ratings far above those of her party, angering many of the stalwarts. The fact that she has moved it to the center (some would say: to the left) has weakened its appeal for traditional and libertarian conservatives. Thuringia’s incumbent Dieter Althaus is burdened with a manslaughter conviction after inadvertently killing a skier last winter. And even his most loyal subjects have been put off by his glibly complacent campaign comments about having achieved closure through acceptance of his responsibility. Saxons and Thuringians alike yearn for a change from the self-serving party machines created by a massive influx of often second-and third-rate political carpetbaggers from the West after 1990.
Yet the SPD has even less cause to be cheerful. Defenders of red-red coalitions point hopefully to the course of the only existing such arrangement, in the city state of Berlin, where the Left Party has been losing ground and votes ever since it came into power under Mayor Klaus Wowereit, an openly gay Social Democrat. The Left Party, a motley assortment of Paleolithic West German communists, disgruntled Social Democrats and pragmatic East German post-communists, they say, is bitterly divided, and will self-destruct from the day it begins to govern.
Their opponents argue glumly that that may be irrelevant if the mere fact of proposing to enter a coalition with the Left rips apart the SPD. As it did in the state of Hessen last January, when the Social Democrat challenger Andrea Ypsilanti saved the faltering political career of the unpopular CDU incumbent Roland Koch by flirting with the Left. The SPD’s ratings, already at an all time low of 22 %, they say, don’t need another kneecapping.
For the Greens, Sunday might be the harbinger of a shift to the kingmaker role once occupied by the Liberals: as the party that decides whether there will be a “bourgeois majority” (with the CDU and FDP) or a leftwing majority (with the SPD and the Left Party).
And the Left Party, which has hitherto “accumulated power without respectability” (Brooke Unger in the Economist) €“ might it even become a responsible player? With promises like “wealth for everyone”, that remains hard to imagine.
Next: what happened on Sunday.