Saturday, 8 September 2007

The weakest of all parties

The Internationale is still regularly sung at the gatherings of some European Social Democratic / Socialist parties, or at least their youth movements. Translations vary, but in German and French, the beginning of the last verse reads:

Ouvriers, paysans, nous sommes
Le grand parti des travailleurs

In Stadt und Land, ihr Arbeitsleute,
wir sind die staerkste der Partei'n

(In English-speaking countries there has traditionally been little reason for such optimism, so the English version never makes any claims about how workers are the strongest of all - quite wise, given the state of European workers' movements today.)

The optimism radiant in the German text could, however, not be more dated. This is especially true in the East of Germany, where pressure from both the new Left-Party and populist right-wing extremists are all-but eclipsing support for the Social Democrats (SPD).

In the important state of Saxony, which includes cities such as Dresden, the situation is particularly dramatic. According to a recent opinion poll, the SPD can expect to receive only 8 % of the vote at the next state elections. The NPD, a neo-Nazi party, is likely to receive 9%!

Far from being the biggest party, then, the Social Democrats are once again gathering less support than outright Nazis in this part of the country. Equally worryingly, even a coalition with the stronger Christian Democrats (CDU), who rate at 39 %, would not grant a majority to the two "Volksparteien", Germany's traditionally dominant mass parties. It is as though Tories and Labour in England failed to muster a majority, with the BNP eclipsing Labour.

Changes to a country's party system are of course normal, and not automatically a reason to worry. But - far from indicating the advent, predicted by sociologists, of a depoliticised era when politics is more about style than substance - the new data implies that the fundamentals of our political system are again being questioned.

In Saxony, the fringes are now so strong that the only possible government constellation would be a coalition including practially all democratic parties. The left-leaning parties - SPD, Left, and Greens - are far from a majority. The traditional parties of the conservative establishment - CDU and the "Liberals" (FDP) - equally fall short of a majority.

The so-called Jamaica coalition, including the CDU (whose traditional colour is black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens has repeatedly been floated as a long-term perspective. But it would be a revolution of German politial culture, which has been shaped in large parts by the stance parties took towards the 1968 student (and cultural) revolution. The CDU combatted it as though it was the demise of civilisation, whilst the Greens are its product. The experiment would therefore be of questionable longevity. It would need a solid parliamentary majority - with the meagre 51 % mustered by the Jamaica-coalition according to the Saxony poll dooming it from the start.

Which leaves as the only possibility a Grand coalition of CDU and SPD, with either the FDP or the Greens, or both, added in. Without precedent, such a constellation would all but eradicate the competition of ideas between mainstream political parties in Germany. The opposition would consist in the main of parties more interested in populist than constructive criticism. And more than likely further weaken the democratic system.

For the time-being, then, there is no alternative - whether you are a lefty or righty, Conservative or Liberal - to hoping that the Social Democrats will regain in strength. Germany, like most European countries, needs a recognisable and strong left-of-centre party to balance the political system. For the moment, the dramatic situation in Saxony is an exception. Let us prey to God - or, if you prefer, invoke Uncle Charly Marx by singing The Internationale - that it will not become the rule.

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