People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 41

October 11, 2009

GERMAN FEDERAL POLLS

 

SPD Stance Benefits Rightist Coalition

 

Naresh ‘Nadeem’

 

HELD on September 27, elections to the lower house of German federal parliament, called Bundestag, have yielded results along expected lines, and Ms Angela Merkel is now the country’s chancellor for one more term. It is another thing that her deputy cum foreign minister is now from a different party. Her rival, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who was the country’s vice chancellor cum foreign minister till recently, has badly lost in terms of his image and standing.

 

GERMAN

SYSTEM

It is to be noted that elections to the Bundestag take place directly every four years, while the legislative bodies in the German states (länder) elect the upper house called Bundesrat, which has substantially less powers than the Bundestag.

A curious feature of the recent poll results is that the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Ms Merkel as well as its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria, have suffered a 1.4 per cent erosion of votes (taken together) though their combined seat tally has gone up from 226 in 2005 to 239 now. The CDU never fights against the CSU that is confined to Bavaria only, and both form a single block in the parliament.  

But first a few words about the peculiarities of the German electoral system. Here the lower house consists of 598 members who are elected in two different ways. Half of the members, that is 299, are elected from as many constituencies, into which the country is divided, and the numbers of constituencies in the 16 German states are in proportion to their respective populations. In this case, a candidate obtaining the highest number of votes in a particular constituency is declared elected from that constituency. It is just like what we have here in India.

But the other half of the Bundestag is elected through a system of proportional representation (PR) with a list system. In this system, various parties publish their lists of individuals at the state level, and voters show their preferences not for individuals but for parties. These party lists are “closed” so that voters are not allowed to choose a few individual candidates from this list and a few from that, or make any alteration in the order in a list. A party has to win at least five per cent of the valid votes cast in order to have a share in the 299 PR seats, but this requirement is waived if a party wins three or more constituency seats. This proportional distribution of seats is a bit complex process and gives rise to the concept of “hangover seats.” These seats are allotted to the parties on the basis of decimal fractions of their percentage shares in the valid votes polled, and are over and above the 598 seats fixed for polling.   

It is thus that every German voter casts two votes --- a “first vote” for a constituency candidate, and a “second vote” for a party list. Of the two votes, the second is considered more important as it determines the final composition of the Bundestag.

 

MAINSTREAM

SUFFERS

Now it is evident from the recent poll results that, in this “mixed member proportional” (MMR) system, the CDU-CSU combine has gained in terms of the constituency seats while losing in the other category. The two parties have won 173 and 45 of the constituency seats respectively, which signifies a gain of 67 seats for the CDU and one seat for the CSU. But, in the PR category, the CDU won only 21 seats, 53 less than in 2005, and the CSU failed to get any PR seat whereas it had got two last time. Thus, they together got 13 more seats than in 2005, despite an erosion of their votes in both the categories. Some commentators have attributed it to a division of anti-Merkel votes. In any case, it is evident that earlier reports about the continuing popularity of Ms Angela Merkel did not hold much water. September 27 marked the CDU-CSU combine’s worst performance over the last six decades.

Led by Guido Westerwelle who is now the country’s vice chancellor cum foreign minister, the ultra-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) has of course made a big gain of 4.8 per cent of the valid votes cast, cornering about 14.6 per cent of votes in the two categories taken together. However, even while getting 9.4 per cent of the first votes (a gain of 4.7 per cent over the 2005 tally), the party has failed to get any constituency seat. In other words, compared to 2005, there is no change in its position here. But in the PR category, the party made a big gain of 32 seats, jumping from 61 in 2005 to 93 now, even though the increase of 4.8 per cent in its PR votes was roughly the same as in the constituency category. This indicates a big shift of the rightist-minded voters from the CDU-CSU to the FDP. This is the best performance of the party in the last six decades, and the party has returned to power after remaining in political wilderness for the last 11 years. Its participation in governance may have its own repercussions over the next four years.

The biggest loser in these federal polls was the centre-left SPD whose policies were often indistinguishable from those of the centre-right CDU. While the party had had 222 seats in the Bundestag in 2005, now it has 146 --- a loss of 76, or more than one third of its previous tally. Its overall vote share also declined by 11.2 per cent, coming to only 23 per cent now. The party lost 81 of the direct constituency seats, and has to content itself with only 64. However, it has gained five seats in the PR category, improving its tally from 77 to 82 despite an 11.2 per cent decline in its PR votes.

Thus, the SPD has suffered the biggest erosion of votes for any party in the last six decades of the German parliamentary polls. (Its previous worst in the post-war period was 28.8 per cent in 1953.) Now the FDP and SPD have mutually changed their positions. While the latter has come out of power after 11 years and gone into political wilderness, it is the other way round for the former.  

 

“BIG DAY

FOR THE LEFT”

Like the FDP, the Greens have also improved their vote tally by 2.6 per cent, cornering 10.7 per cent of the valid votes cast. They have won 67 seats in the PR category in place of the earlier 50, while their position in the constituency category remains the same --- at one.

As for Die Linke, the Left party, its performance in the federal polls has confirmed that its gains in the three state level elections held on August 30 (see People’s Democracy, September 13) were by no means a fluke. It has won 16 of the direct constituency seats and 60 PR seats, a gain of respectively 13 and 9 seats over 2005. Getting 11.9 per cent of the valid votes polled, the party has improved its overall vote tally by 3.2 per cent, and the improvement is evenly spread over both the categories. A jubilant Oscar Lafontaine, who led Die Linke in these polls, celebrated his party’s performance as “a big day for the Left” when the party had entered the Bundestag for the second time and thus “established itself as a party.” One notes that the federal polls 2005 were the first Die Linke had contested. 

Another noteworthy feature of the Left performance is that Die Linke has made significant gains or at least inroads in most of the German states. Though it received only 6.5 per cent of the popular votes in Bavaria, its share was over 20 per cent in Berlin (20.2 per cent), Brandenburg (28.5 per cent), Saarland (21.2 per cent) Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (29.0 per cent), Saxony (24.5 per cent), Saxony-Anhalt (32.4 per cent) and Thuringia (21.2 per cent). It scored double-digit figures in Bremen (14.2 per cent) and Hamburg (11.2 per cent). In Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, its vote share was highest among the contesting parties.

This was the first time that Die Linke won constituency seats outside Berlin, its stronghold. The three constituency seats it had won in 2005 were all from Berlin. 

All the other parties --- e g the Pirate Party, Animal Welfare Party, Family Party, etc --- failed to open accounts in either category. People, by and large, consider them freaks and are not much enamoured of them. Their vote tallies ranged from 0.1 to 2.0 per cent. The Bundestag will now have representatives of only five parties.

The line-up is now what it was expected to be during the run-up to the polls. Even if the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens had combined after the polls, their tally could come to 290 only while the CDU-CSU-FDP combine has a total of 332 seats. (The grand total comes to 622, including the 24 “hangover” seats.) The rightist combine has thus an edge of 42 seats.  

 

GLARING

COINCIDENCES

To recapitulate ---

The CDU-CSU performance was their worst in the last six decades.

The SPD performance was its worst in the last six decades.

The FDP performance was its best in the last six decades.

Though not so old, the Greens and Die Linke also made creditable gains.

The coindences are too glaring to be ignored.

The first conclusion we may possibly draw is that a good number of the pro-right voters have gone over to the FDP that has a conservative programme. On the other hand, a good number of pro-left voters have deserted the SPD and gone over to Die Linke. This is how the mainstream gods have suffered while the lesser mortals have gained.

The second conclusion we may possibly draw is that the SPD’s extremely poor performance was its own creation and not because of any better showing by its enemies. If only the SPD had not rejected Die Linke’s suggestion that they two and the Greens must have an alliance to face the rightist combination (reported in these columns earlier), the result could possibly be significantly different. Even by the recent actual figures, despite the division of their votes, their vote tally comes to around 46 per cent together, as against the 48 per cent of the CDU-CSU-FDP combine. There was thus a certain degree of probability that if only Steinmeier and SPD president Franz Müntefering had not killed the prospects of a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens, they might possibly have showed Ms Merkel the door. (One notes that their state level lieutenants had done the same thing earlier in Thuringia.) According to some commentators, it was the SPD’s mortal fear of the Left which made Ms Merkel fearless about breaking with the SPD and, instead, courting the far-right FDP. In fact, she had made her intentions known even before the poll process started.

The election campaign was exceptionally boring, and both the top contenders --- Ms Merkel and Steinmeier --- lacked any such charisma as might enthuse the voters, though the media left no stone unturned to create a hype about the former’s continuing popularity. But a far bigger reason was that the CDU as well as the SPD sought to defend the record of the “grand coalition” in the last four years, with Steinmeier even hinting that the same coalition might be revived after the polls. On her part, as reports suggest, Ms Merkel was happy with a low-key campaign. But her rival also dismally failed to raise the problems facing the people. Not to talk of demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, its leaders even refused to accept the situation over there as a war situation. The SPD’s failure to highlight an alternative policy regime was regarded as the main factor behind the voters’ apathy.

 

WHAT GERMANS

CAN NOW EXPECT

Now that Ms Merkel is again in the saddle, this time in league with the FDP, the question is: what can the Germans expect from the new regime? 

Here comes the crux. During the election campaign, the CDU as well as the SPD refrained from openly stating what the voters might expect from them in the midst of the ongoing international crisis. Instead, they allowed petty issues to dominate the scene, like the health minister using his official car for personal purposes. Only Die Linke told the voters to be vigilant as, post election, new burdens could be imposed upon them.   

A report on August 25 in the Financial Times Deutschland, a German language paper owned by the Financial Times group of the UK, confirmed the fears in this regard. Referring to several top-level corporate executives, it said there was a “kind of moratorium between industry and the government” to postpone major job cuts till the election is over. As soon as the election is over, it added, “German industry intends to implement massive job cuts.” The newspaper concluded: “The admissions by managers only serve to confirm fears that the severest cuts for German workers have yet to come.”

Writing in Handelsblatt, Olaf Henkel, who is on the board of several large concerns, said the same thing: “Immediately after the elections not only the consequences of the economic crisis, but also of the self-made (i.e., government’s) policy will lead to a drastic increase in the numbers of German unemployed.” He even taunted the ruling CDU and SPD that they were too afraid “to tell voters the truth now about the decisions which will be made in the next legislative period.”

The future thus holds the possibility of severe cuts in social security and other pro-people expenditures. The recent, constitutionally imposed limit on debt can only cause merciless budgetary cuts in view of the howling of the rapid growth in the country’s budget deficit. The billions donated to the banks, the gaping holes in tax revenues and the loud noises about the increasing burden of social welfare and insurance payments --- all these indicate that the German ruling classes may seek to overcome the ongoing crisis by making the weakest sections of society their sacrificial goats.