Circumstantial evidence suggests the traditional left is alive and well in Berlin. My neighbourhood is full of posters printed with Marx’s picture and slogans such as ‘Marx is Back’ and ‘Permanent Crisis: we’re not paying!’ Thanks to the recession, Kreuzberg’s May Day demonstrations were livelier than they’ve been for some time: more flaming mattresses, more paint-bombed buildings, more arrests. And at the Freie Universitaet the only party with any discernible campaign presence in the run up to the European elections was the uncompromisingly anti-capitalist Die Linke, a part-successor to East Germany’s old SED.
When it comes to Germany as a whole, Sunday’s election results paint a rather different picture. At 7.5 per cent, Die Linke aren’t going anywhere fast, their share of the vote up a measly 0.6 points since 2004. But it’s the collapse of support for the centre-left Social Democrats – at 20.8 per cent the worst nationwide election result in the party’s history – that’s caught most attention. This looks like the end of their ruling alliance with Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, both down too (a collective share of 37.9 per cent, compared to 44.5 per cent in 2004) but still on track for success in September’s general elections. Perhaps the real winner was the liberal, market-oriented Free Democratic Party, up 5 points to 11 per cent and in a strong position, come the autumn, to supplant the SPD in a new Merkel-led coalition.
Various explanations are being touted for this SPD ‘debacle’: it’s symptomatic of poor results across Europe for parties on the left; in times of crisis, people naturally become more conservative; the party still hasn’t got its act together following Gerhard Schroeder’s unpopular, welfare-slashing Agenda 2010. Or did the SPD’s successful fight to save Opel, at a cost of $2.14 billion, prove a hand-out too far? If a TV interview he gave last week is anything to go on, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current vice-chancellor and SPD candidate for Merkel’s job, isn’t about to prompt chants of ‘Yes we can’ any time soon.
Low turn-out certainly didn’t help: 43 per cent, about the European average, but half what’s usually expected in a German general election. The SPD’s Joern Thiessen has even suggested that a 50 euro fine should be slapped on those who fail to exercise their democratic right in future. It seems unlikely, however, that this would solve his party’s problems. If anything in these elections, in a country usually enthusiastic about the European project and boasting more MEPs than any other nation, it was precisely an emphasis on domestic party politics at the expense of European issues that proved detrimental. The Bavaria Party’s self-satirising adverts may have been extreme but were in a sense symptomatic: posters showing a lederhosen and dirndl-clad couple walking into the distance, encouraging Berliners to vote ‘for a Germany without Bavaria’.