PDS Election Result

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The German Party of Democratic Socialism(PDS) had a disappointing election. As the Social Democrats and Greens clung on to power, the PDS failed to reach the 5% threshold which would have seen it maintain its representation in the Bundestag (Parliament). In Germany’s mixed electoral system, it did manage to win two seats outright. Here, the PDS national committee explains the party’s worst election result since reunification.

 

These elections, after a long, highly personalised and Americanised campaign ended with one of the narrowest outcomes in the history of post-war Germany. The main result is that the present coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Alliance 90/The Greens under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder will be able to stay in government with the tiny majority of 9 parliamentary seats. Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (Greens) declared their willingness to continue the co-operation of the two parties. Thus the positive message is that the candidate of the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), ultra-conservative Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber was prevented from taking over government in Berlin.

This success cannot be claimed by the SPD which won 38.5 % of the vote, losing 2.4 % against the result of 1998. The voters – particularly in the traditional SPD strongholds in the west German Lander (states) – showed their discontent with the bad situation in the economy and on the labour market, with the highly “un-social” reforms of pensions and taxes. The SPD lost seriously among workers. But nevertheless the party will have the largest group of deputies in the Bundestag because it managed to win most of the direct mandates in the constituencies. A big role was played by the personal popularity of Chancellor Schröder who took the chance to boost it even more by showing quick, decisive action when some of the east German Lander suffered a historic flood disaster in August.

The government coalition was rescued by the major success of the Greens who received 8.6 % against 6.7 % 1998 – thus winning their first national election after 20 lost ones on different levels. In their case the flood may have sharpened the sensitivity of many people – particularly in the badly damaged eastern Lander – for more efforts in environmental protection, a traditional sphere of the Greens. The party may also have received the votes of persons concerned with the continuation of the red-green government where the Greens with their long series of election losses were always seen as a shaky partner. This result is a personal success for Joschka Fischer and other Green ministers.

The CDU/CSU, which tried by all means to topple the government coalition over the economy and high unemployment issues could increase their share by 3.4 % but ended neck and neck with the SPD, receiving 38.5 %. With their would-be partner the FDP doing not nearly as well as expected the dream of taking over government did not come true. The German voters rejected a come-back of the conservatives after only four years in opposition. Their candidate Stoiber, with his narrow conservative views on such subjects as labour, social justice, the environment, family, women, sexuality etc. proved not acceptable for a big part of the German population outside Bavaria. In his homeland, though, the CSU scored a new record of more than 60 %. And the conservatives gained ground among workers and the middle classes.

Losers of these elections are the Free Democrats (FDP) with 7.4 % of the vote. Although they slightly increased their share by 1.2 % they missed by far their boastfully announced margin of 18 %. Obviously, the voters did not appreciate their trick of leaving open the doors for alliances with any of the big parties. In addition, the attempt by their Vice Chair Möllemann to profit from anti-Semitic resentments in the German population did not pay either.

Another positive message of these elections is that right-wing extremist, populist and neo-fascist parties had no chance, getting less than 1 % each.

The turnout was with 79.1 % less than 1998 (82.2 %) which then represented a historic low. The tendency for people to turn away from politics remains a problem for all political forces in Germany.

The PDS was dealt a heavy blow in these national elections. After continuous presence in the Bundestag since German unification in 1990 it this time missed the 5 % barrier. It did not manage to win at least 3 constituencies either – the second way for entering parliament with a Group of deputies. It received 4 %, i. e. 1.1 % less than 1998 and won 2 direct mandates in Berlin. So the party will be represented in the next Bundestag only by these two deputies.

The PDS National Executive held after a first exchange of views that the party did not manage to convince by its program and personnel enough people to vote it into the next Bundestag. It suffered losses of votes in both eastern and western Germany. There are internal and external reasons for this. But as PDS Chair Gabi Zimmer and Party Secretary Dietmar Bartsch pointed out, for this defeat we have mainly to blame ourselves.

These are the first elections the PDS lost since its existence and – because of the German electoral law – with dramatic consequences. The conditions for its further political work will be worsening in every respect – as organisation, personnel, finances and media access are concerned. This failure will also deal a heavy blow to the party’s efforts to develop its structures and influence in the west German Lander.

The reasons are manifold. At first glance it seems difficult to explain why the party whose rating in the polls was between 6 and 8 % till June/July, whose political resonance seemed to be increasing, lost so much within a few weeks. The many ups and downs in the voters’ favour related to all parties. They show a rising volatility in their preferences – a new tendency in German political life which afflicts especially the east of the country.

One important factor unfavourable for the PDS was the enormous polarisation of the election campaign growing nearly into a personal battle between Schröder and Stoiber. Schröder’s gains and Stoiber’s losses in the east German Lander which both go against the overall trend demonstrate clearly that this election was won and lost there. Parts of the population obviously had not forgotten Stoiber’s threats on former occasions to sanction the East financially for sticking to convictions too far left in his eyes, among them without doubt many former PDS voters.

A second factor is Chancellor Schröder's abrupt turnabout into resistance against German participation in a forthcoming American military adventure against Iraq. In this bold manoeuvre he saw his last chance to catch the lead in the polls again with Stoiber running ahead for a number of weeks. Until now he has stuck to this position despite the pressure of the US government, the German conservatives and even some EU partners. The elections result shows that by this manoeuvre he met the mood of a big majority of the German people. The PDS should have been happy that their long-time demands were at last met by the government but the outcome is that those sympathisers of SPD and Greens who gave the PDS their votes in the last elections, thus honouring its consistent efforts for peace, had now the chance to return to their old favourites again.

A third moment is that the Federal Chancellor during his whole term of office had had a bad record in changing the economic situation in east Germany with the development gap between east and west widening again and unemployment rates rocketing to new records. But suddenly the flood gave him the chance to present himself as the rescuer of the badly hit east German victims, thus playing down his former indifference to the problems of the east. The PDS as an opposition party had little chance to profile itself in the same manner although its leaders and election candidates did much to organise solidarity with the victims and rather to take part in the rescue works themselves than posing in front of TV cameras on shaky dikes as Schröder, Stoiber and Fischer did.

But this bad result has home-grown reasons in the first place. It means, as Gabi Zimmer said, a failure of the manner we made politics in these elections.

The PDS obviously did not manage to react forcefully enough to Schröder’s manoeuvres in the peace question and with respect to eastern Germany by reminding the voters its own long-term record, taking the Chancellor at his word and pressuring him further in the right direction. 12 years after unification it can no longer be taken for granted that the PDS should be recognised as the only defender of the interests of the east German population. The party has to pay more attention to changing moods and changing identities.

There were different, sometimes conflicting signals from the PDS leadership regarding whether to stay in a consistent opposition to the red-green government or helping Schröder to win the battle against Stoiber. That may have confused a part of the voters. Going into the campaign with a group of four new leaders instead of concentrating on one front-runner may have been not the best choice either. The ageing membership of the party limited its capacities in street campaigning.

The fact that the PDS’s most popular politician, Berlin’s Deputy Mayor and Economics Senator Gregor Gysi stepped down from his post when the election campaign was in full swing may have had its influence, too.

There is the view that the PDS lost a lot of votes by showing too low a profile in Lander governments with the SPD. Indeed, the biggest losses the party had to face were in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (- 7.3 %) and Saxony-Anhalt (- 6.3 %) where it is in a government coalition or for several years tolerated a minority government. However, in Berlin, where the party has been in government for 9 months the loss was the lowest all over east Germany. But in general there is no doubt that the party must do more to promote social justice and equality in government policies thus sharpening its own profile. The government coalition of SPD and PDS in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where there were Lander elections on the 22 September, too, managed to defend its majority and will continue the co-operation.

The opinion polls show that the PDS has not been sanctioned by the voters for its main policy orientations. A majority in east and west says that the party is a necessary part of the German political landscape as a fighter for peace and social justice, as a genuine voice and bearer of hopes of the East. If it vanished completely from parliament, that would have been felt as a clear loss for democracy in Germany. People see the PDS’s function in parliament as urging the government from the left to stick to its promises on the peace question against growing American and conservative pressure, to fight against neo-liberal “reforms” in the social and economic fields, to put the genuine problems of the east on the agenda of parliament. For our two young women deputies that will be a giant’s task to shoulder.

Now the party has begun a deep-going analysis of this most difficult situation in its short history. On 12-13 October, 2002 the 1st Session of its 8th Congress will take place in the Thuringian town of Gera. There the delegates will draw the conclusions of these last developments, give the orientation for further programmatic work and elect a new party leadership. The party will have to decide on its further orientation. There is widespread consensus that this election result does not mean a failure of the PDS project of a modern socialist force to the left of the Social Democracy in the whole of Germany. The party will continue to strive to this goal. But obviously there can be no mere sticking to the old ways. First and foremost the congress will have to answer the question of what concrete offers the PDS has to make to ordinary people in Germany and the EU in view of their vital hopes and fears for the future. This is the main condition for its sustainable existence in German society.