Berlin Bulletin No. 156
Germany’s feverish political scene cooled off just a little. Two big sighs of relief permitted some people, at least temporarily, to stop chewing their fingernails.
The first act opened with a loud bang; Angela Merkel, 64, was stepping down! After 18 years presiding over the biggest party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and 13 years as chancellor (like prime minister), she flouted her own insistence that both jobs belonged in one person’s hands and gave up the first job. She can remain chancellor until 2021, but will not then try for a fourth term. There have been murmurs that she might not even last that long; the top job is not bound by such strong cement as the presidency of the USA. But such murmurs are far from defined and opinion polls still award her slightly over 50% approval ratings..
After she decided to step down from the party chair, Germany was gripped by the search for successor to a job which might later lead to the top rung. In the past, a single name was often marked from the start. This time three rivals grabbed the stage. The ambitious young Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, 38, long a right-wing opponent of Merkel, was disliked in nearly all circles. The second contender, Friedrich Merz, 63, lost a political duel with Merkel years ago and turned to business, becoming boss of the German division of Blackstone, a giant world holding company managing assets of countless big companies, itself worth over $450 billion and involved in many smelly financial scandals. His “free market” views were as far right as you could go; if he were to win the vacancy and a better chance for the very top in 1921 or sooner, many feared that Germany would be headed down a road like that of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The third candidate, friendly-talking but sometimes pugnacious little Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, was premier in her state of Saarland, then secretary-general of the CDU, second in rank to Merkel, and like her seen as a moderate. The media often abbreviate her long name to AKK.
After debates in eight cities the three arrived in Hamburg on December 7th where 1001 CDU delegates would choose the winner. It was a tight race. AKK was ahead in the first vote, but her 45% was not enough to win. In the second vote Spahn was out. His supporters split – and gave her a slim margin, 51.7%. Merz had lost – resulting in a widespread collective sigh of relief.
Why did Merkel quit and announce the end of her career in three years? What had weakened the broad support, even affection, for the “Mutti “of the nation? (Mutti, meaning Mama, rhymes not with mutt, or putty, but with sooty).
One problem was the European Union or EU, for which she was the main champion.
A main original goal of this organization, conceived in part by Winston Churchill and Allen Dulles, the sinister founder of the CIA, was to recruit the industrial wealth and know-how of defeated West Germany into an alliance against Soviet influence and all anti-capitalist, socialist trends. The Cold War had begun; this was a companion piece to the military NATO. It has since expanded to most of Europe and, as threatening as NATO, to the borders of Russia and Belarus. Though with varied goals, it is still directed against the slightest flirt with leftist trends, even when its austerity recipe means poverty and misery, as in Greece.
Such policies made Merkel hated there. Other bricks of her Lego edifice proved equally rickety. British Brexit was followed by Italian intransigence in budget making. Irish border lines proved sticky. Her buddy (and rival) in Paris, also an advocate of a big new European army, was sharply distracted by thousands in yellow vests. Which international friends were left? Even the head of the closest and strongest in Washington could be testy about shaking her hand for the camera. Her friends in Poland and Eastern Europe rebelled at accepting even a handful of refugees if they weren’t white and Christian, while Germany had, thanks to Merkel, taken in close to a million.
Even more worrisome was the situation inside Germany. Her avoidance of extreme measures, her pleasant smile, moderate way of speaking and relative economic success, based on Germany’s mighty export trade, though it impoverished millions in other continents, helped the calm pastor’s daughter and young physicist from East Germany to win many years in power.
She had always been a good servant to the upper centile while letting her lieutenants do the dirty work: starving out Greece, building an aggressive European army led by Germany, using the “terrorist” threat to intensify surveillance and police pro-fascist bias, letting rents soar and cities gentrify and, while boasting of full employment, permitting a third of the country to subsist on insecure, precarious, minimal-pay jobs often forced upon those hunting jobs.
But then her welcome mat for refugees, whatever its motivation, cost her the support of the rightist, xenophobic sector of German citizenry, who blamed their anxiety, joblessness and other woes on “the Islamist invaders” – and on Merkel who brought them in. Too many angry CDU voters turned right, marched with anti-Islam, anti-Merkel placards and voted for the AfD. Her magnetism was dwindling in its attraction.
Too many voters in East Germany, promised “blossoming landscapes” if they joined the West, saw their towns emptied out by departing industry, with lower wages and worse conditions for those still holding on. It was here that hatred of Merkel “and her foreigners” was greatest. Merkel’s star was sinking almost everywhere. Now and again, not surprisingly, she looked more tired.
Would AKK make a difference? Could the coalition hold out until 2021? The Social Democratic partners have been taking the worst hits; their poll results are now down to a frightful 15%, half that of the CDU. The two combined would get less than 50%. Its voters now often mark their ballots for the Greens, even while younger Social Democrats try, vainly thus far, to get their leaders to change directions and move leftward – not only with tired clichés. And despite the more and more luke-warm positions of the Greens in all but their leadership in “Hate Russia” belligerency.
Growing disillusionment and anger should have led to growing strength for the LINKE, the Left party. It did not. In all-German polls the results stagnated at 9-10%, even dipping to 8%, while in the smaller East, once at about 25%, they were heading downwards to 15-20%. According to the militant wing of the party, this was due to constant efforts to keep or gain entry into state government cabinet posts, usually in coalitions with the SPD and maybe the Greens. Where achieved, as in Thuringia, Brandenburg and Berlin, some improvements could be achieved. But no major ones. The hands of government ministers were shackled by unfair budget limits, by hopes to attract big business investment without fear of labor unrest, by the need to accommodate coalition partners – and by hopes to keep good positions. There might be some skirmishes in the state houses, but almost never genuine struggles in the streets against on-going, increasing exploitation. So why vote for them?
This was the reasoning behind a major decision by the party’s most prominent theoretician and wonderfully gifted orator, the quick-witted, attractive hence media-favored Sahra Wagenknecht, 49. Although she is also co-chair of the LINKE caucus in the Bundestag, in September she and several others started their collective movement “Aufstehen” – Stand Up, hoping to attract those dissatisfied with their leaders in the SPD and the Green , it also aimed at those opposing the establishment who voted for the AfD or stayed home on election day.
A big question arose immediately: would this increase the strength of a broader progressive Left in Germany, halting the rise of the fascists and opposing the belligerent trend toward confrontation with Russia? Or might it instead draw active people from the LINKE and split the party? Did it, despite its declarations, intend to start up a new party – the death knell for the LINKE? And was “Sahra”, as she is generally known, lean so far toward the AfD rejection of free immigration for all refugees that her statements almost resembled those of the AfD? Was Aufstehen tending toward nationalist positions not distinguishable enough from those on the right? Sahra and her group denied this, saying that their emphasis was realistic, aimed at preventing the causes of refugee flight – wars led by western powers and exploitation in trade practices which crushed the lands of the southern hemisphere. Sweeping appeals for freedom for all to enter might seem more moral but were neither realistic nor correct. It was a complicated matter– not only here.
This quarrel masked other differences, also personal animosities, which threaten to tear the LINKE apart, soon destroying it and leaving the Bundestag and media without even a small voice opposing foreign wars and domestic exploitation. Early in December the quarrel neared a climax as some leaders of the LINKE, deciding to support a new Immigration program in the Bundestag (with other countries meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco), moved toward a showdown, a vote which could lead to the removal of Sahra from her leadership post in the Bundestag caucus of the LINKE and a final split. Those of us for whom the further existence of the party was so vitally important, regardless of the position we favored in this unnecessary debate, held our breath. Could this disastrous reef be avoided so the party could turn fully to tough battles which needed all our energy outside its walls?
It could! Sahra’s group offered a compromise resolution which few could oppose, an agreement was reached – and this time at least the ship could sail ahead. Its future course remains uncertain, often uncharted, but for now this agreement also permitted a grateful if brief sigh of relief!