By Matt Heaney, Berlin (09.09.2002)
Since the massive floods of August which devastated many parts of central Europe, including parts of eastern Germany, such as Dresden, as well as Bavaria, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's (SPD) poll rating has been rising. Not as fast as the tides a few weeks before, but enough to give Schröder a chance of holding onto the reigns of government in Berlin for another four years.
Before the disaster came, it didn't look like Schröder had that much of a chance
against his challenger from the right, Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber (CDU/CSU). But the opportunity to look strong and statesmanlike amongst a backdrop of sandbags and destroyed railway lines has helped it seem that the Chancellor just might be able to swim and not sink in the general election.
Not that there's much difference between the policies of the two main parties. After a set-piece debate on state television between Schröder and Stoiber, the tabloid 'Berliner Kurier' ran with the headline "Which tie will get your vote?" (9 September) - and the ties were as similar as the policies being argued.
For most readers of 'Solidarity' two parties in particular will be interesting: the Greens; and the "socialist" PDS.
The German Greens are the world's most successful, in terms of votes and positions in government. At their height they were achieving polls of around 12%, but today - after four years of coalition government with Schröder's Social Democrats - they are hovering at around 7% (nationally, with neglible scores in the east).
The Greens are keen to point to their achievements in the past four years, as they see them. Negotiating the end of nuclear power (not immediately as promised, but over 20 years, and Stoiber has openly said he would scrap the deal if he wins) and gay marriages (which do not come with the same rights as heterosexual marriage; Stoiber also wishes to scrap this) being the main two. Supporting NATO and sending German troops to fight - for the first time since 1945 - in former Yugoslavia, also being an example of the "new realism" in the party. This has alienated a section of supporters, and much of society, with the Greens being seen as a party for minority groups but not really interested in anyone else.
The PDS - the Party of Democratic Socialists emerged out of the former East German ruling party, the SED. For a number of years the party didn't seem sure whether it wanted to concentrate on being in "consistent opposition" or on getting into government; on building the party in the west, or remaining an east German regional party. Recently the "right" in the party have gained the upper hand - participating in a number of coalition governments with the SPD in the east, and abandoning the west of the country.
Under German law, to be represented in the Bundestag, parties have gain 5% of the national vote. If a party wins 3 constituencies (but less than 5%), it receives top-up seats to take its representation up to the percentage scored. In the 1998 general election, the PDS managed both - 3 seats in eastern Berlin, and slightly over 5%. They were safe.
But this time, it could be somewhat more difficult. The PDS has not gained out of making cuts with the SPD at regional level - supporters have turned away in droves - or died, a large proportion of the party's members and supporters being pensioners.
Also the PDS no longer has the charismatic lawyer, Dr. Gregor Gysi, as leader. He was the PDS's best advert - amusing, witty, good at debating, a popular chat show guest, and he gained one of the constituency seats last time. He resigned from his post as Berlin's deputy mayor (where the PDS are in coalition with the SPD) after being caught out using air miles gained on parliamentary trips for personal holidays with his family. Yes, he did take them to Cuba.
The same affair over the summer also led to the resignation of Schröder's (SPD) defence minister. The press and other politicians didn't call for Gysi's resignation - he had been quite openly looking for an excuse to leave active politics for a while.
The PDS have also had the wind taken out of their sails by Schröder's opposition to Blair and Bush's plans for war on Iraq - the PDS has tried to position themselves as a party of peace. Schröder's "turn to the left" has led to him waxing lyrical about the glories of eating sausages from street-corner stands, and not smoking expensive cigars in more expensive designer suits as he had been doing for the fast few years. "Full employment" has again become a catchphrase. He attacked the "economy" (meaning the capitalists) as a "fifth column" in society.
When Schröder became Chancellor he said that he wouldn't deserve being re-elected if he hadn't reduced unemployment to less than 3 million. Unemployment is much higher today: his pre-election answer, supported by the union leadership, is to radically reform employment law, privatise job centres and force millions into agency McJobs, merging supplementary benefit and unemployment benefit (i.e. introducing a form of JSA with associated schemes and sanctions). Stoiber has on one hand dismissed the plans, but on the other has claimed they're all his policies anyway.
Even if the SPD does win the most votes, it is unlikely that the Greens' vote will provide them with a parliamentary majority. So the only alternative are the Liberals. Who are also willing to go with the Tory CDU/CSU.
The Liberals, also known as the Free Democrats (FDP), are a party for out-and-out capitalists, for free marketeers, many of whom have rather doubtful right wing views. They held the balance of power in West Germany for decades. In recent years, they have become more of a joke. The FDP's main idea is "Project 18", the sole aim of which is to get 18% of the vote. Vote FDP! Why? So we get lots of votes! Why? So we get lots of votes!
If 'Noel's House Party' was standing in elections, this would be it. No stunt is mad or cheap enough. Monster Raving Loonies with a lot of money, "bonkers" capitalist policiesand state funding. The leader, Westerwelle, went on 'Big Brother' for a week. He wears shoes with a big yellow "18" painted on to the soles. His deputy does bungee jumps and parachute jumps to get on the news. Ex-game show hosts and former porn stars as candidates. The concept was laughed at, but it seems to be working. The Liberals will get a vote that they couldn't have dreamed of two years ago, when they were being written off as a spent force - in the same way as the PDS are now. 18% is not likely, but these are the depths that German bourgeois politics has reached.
If Schröder does go into coalition with the FDP, his left talk will be worth even less than it is now.
The Tories have somehow managed to keep ex-Chancellor Kohl's very dodgy dealings if not corruption out of the limelight, with the tacit support of the Social Democrats. They are also "talking left" on unemployment - which only shows the reality of the SPD's record.
And the real left? Most are saying something along the lines of "vote PDS (or SPD) and fight". There are a few socialist candidates, most notably from the organisation linked to the Socialist Party in England. There is no Socialist Alliance.
The election is on 22 September.
Current (06.09.02) poll ratings: SPD 38%; CDU/CSU 39.5%; Greens 7.5%; FDP 8.5%; PDS 4%; Others 2.5%. In the east the PDS is on 17%, in the west 1%. A month ago the SPD had 34% to the CDU/CSU's 41%.
Haider by Gerry Byrne
Far-right Austrian politician Jörg Haider is once again in the limelight. Infighting in his Freedom Party led to the resignation of its key government ministers, and early elections are to be called. Haider was forced to resign the leadership of his party and step out of national politics after international protests at his presence in government. But whether he can regain the 25% his party gained at the last elections must be uncertain.