Weimar Republic 2.0? 7 Thoughts on the Berlin Elections

by Mark Bergfeld

19 September 2016


Yesterday’s election results in Berlin show that Germany’s political landscape is being reshaped. While patterns become clearer, the outcome is yet to be determined.

1. The AfD is here to stay.

It should now be clear to everyone following German politics that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) will enter the Bundestag next year. The AfD’s vote of 13.6% might be dwarfed by the massive vote of nearly 21% in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern a couple of weeks ago, yet it shows the party is even able to enter local government in Europe’s most left-wing capital city.

For a large section of voters the AfD is viewed as a protest party against Angela Merkel’s government and its migration and asylum policies. At the moment the AfD remains a catch-all party, grabbing votes from all other political parties despite its ideological premise being völkisch-national. This signals a worrying trend in German politics insofar as it is no longer a taboo to vote for a party which does not distance itself from the ideology of national socialism and the Third Reich.

2. The antifascist and anti-racist movements are yet to wake up.

The Berliner antifascist movement has been in crisis ever since the dissolution of the biggest group, Antifaschistische Linke Berlin (ALB). While there have been many anti-racist initiatives and self-organised immigrant protests since the beginning of the crisis, the movements have not been able to counter the electoralist AfD which derives its main momentum at the ballot box and not on the streets. In turn the street demonstration against the AfD earlier this month was far weaker than the organisers expected but also showed that it requires a political front which places anti-racism central to its activity.

3. The wall might have fallen back in 1989 but Berlin remains a divided city.

In the eastern parts of the city the AfD won 15.2% and in the west only 10%. Shockingly, the AfD even won 7.4% of the popular vote in the former epicentre of the squatting and punk movement, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

We see a similar divide in the votes of Die Linke (The Left). In the east, Die Linke won 25.2% and in the west 10.4%. The difference here is that Die Linke won percentage points in western parts of the city and lost in eastern parts of the city. Meanwhile Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), only won 13% in the east and 20% in the west. This polarisation is likely to replicate itself at a national level in the coming national elections in 2017.

4. The CDU result of 19.6% is a vote against Merkel.

Despite the CDU’s ‘law and order’ campaign which called for more police and law enforcement, the CDU lost six percentage points. The result has the potential to engulf the CDU in an existential crisis given that its raison d’etre has always been to absorb parties to its right or marginalise others through triangulation. The problem this time is that Merkel has been in power for 11 years and has continuously appeased liberal-left constituencies through turning off nuclear power stations and initiating investment programmes at the beginning of the crisis.

It is a vicious cycle for the CDU, and it is possible they will find themselves in a similar position to the French Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which was forced to move further and further to the right due to the growing strength of the Front National (FN). The result was that the more right-wing UMP became, the more votes went to the ‘original’ FN.

5. Die Linke is recovering from catastrophe.

Die Linke’s vote is an improvement on the last election, particularly in western parts of the city where it could double its vote in some places. However it is important to bear in mind that the last election was a catastrophe – losing more than 10k votes – after having been in the Red-Red coalition (with the Social Democrats) which privatised social housing and engaged in budget cuts. Yesterday’s vote means the ‘Realo’ wing of the party can now present itself as the leadership of the party at a national level once again and prepare a strategy for their much-desired Red-Red-Green coalition at a national level.

It is true that Berlin is not Germany, and the coalitions devised in the country’s capital are not replicable on a one-to-one basis. However the crucial difference is that Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow is governing the federal state of Thuringia already. The party has matured – not always necessarily for the better – and its national party leadership is not driving a hardcore oppositional course at this moment in time. A coalition with the Greens and the Social Democratic party (SPD) in Berlin would send very different signals to a national level this time around.

6. The Social Democrats have decisions to make.

A Red-Red-Green coalition all depends on the SPD, which might be moving away from Merkel and the CDU but not particularly into the direction of Die Linke either. At today’s extraordinary party congress, SPD is most likely to vote down TTIP, but vote for CETA. Thus it remains tied to big business. Even Sigmar Gabriel’s middle finger to a group of fascists can’t change that.

The question is whether the SPD will tie itself to Merkel’s sinking ship or whether it wants to rise with the tide of opposition in the months to come. It is likely to straddle the two, choosing whatever coalition will guarantee its place in government. As former SPD leader Franz Müntefering once said: “Regieren ist alles. Opposition ist Mist” (Governing is everything – Opposition is crap). In the meantime the SPD will pasokify even further.

7. Social movements need to develop a social and political strategy.

Whether a Red-Red-Green coalition would be progressive and further the cause of working people and other groups marginalised in the neoliberal city depends much on the social movements.

The squatting movement is a shadow of its former self, but despite that fact it has been able to defend one of its oldest houses from eviction. Additionally, the Kotti & Co initiative has brought migrant and non-migrant tenants together in collective struggles against rent hikes. The question is how the activist left will build up a social and political opposition in the city at a time when the main parliamentary opposition are the CDU and AfD. This is a question only the movements can answer themselves.

All results correct as of 10pm BST+1 on 19 September 2016.

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