Berlin Election Outcome Signals Merkel’s Tenuous Grip on Chancellorship

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GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.

Last Sunday Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Party, the CDU, suffered a tremendous electoral beating in the elections for the parliament of the city of Berlin. Also, the far-right anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, jumped from no representation in the legislature to 14.2 percent. A clearly diminished Chancellor Angela Merkel had the following to say to the press after the results were announced:

ANGELA MERKEL: Yesterday’s vote for the Berlin City Parliament was displeasing and disappointing for the CDU. After the last not-so-good results, the CDU now lost another 6 percent. The Grand Coalition has lost its majority and that is very bitter.

WILPERT: Another victor, aside from the Alternative for Germany in these elections was the socialist party, Die Linke, which increased its share of the vote from 11.7 percent in 2011 to 15.6 percent on Sunday.

Joining us from Berlin, to analyze these results and what they mean for Germany and beyond, is Victor Grossman. Victor is author of “Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany”.

Thanks for being on The Real News, Victor.

VICTOR GROSSMAN: Thank you for inviting me.

WILPERT: So, the election result in Berlin is actually just the latest defeat for the Christian Democrats which are led by Chancellor Merkel. Because there have been a series of regional votes in Germany over the past year. Also, the success of the AfD, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, this is their fourth or fifth consecutive success. What is going on in Germany? Is the country moving to the right as a whole?

GROSSMAN: It looks that way. Whereas at first when Angel Merkel opened the doors to the large, large number of immigrants of refugees, about half the population opened their arms and were very, very welcoming. But about half the population were not. Because the media have been picking up every bit of dirt they can about this person or that person who’s a refugee who’s stepped across the line and done something nasty which is obvious with a million people and a lot of them young people without families it’s bound to happen.

But they’ve built this up and the anti-feeling, the counter feeling, actually the racist feeling has grown so very much that Angela Merkel has actually been losing popularity at such a rate that she has to be afraid that she may not get chosen again as head of the party or of course as Chancellor again. It’s a dangerous situation and this was reflected in Berlin as well. Not as badly as in some of the other states, bigger states. Berlin being a city-state is somewhat more open and liberal than the larger state but 14% as a starter for the first time is really a dangerous element and the whole picture especially if you look around Europe where this is happening in one country after the other, it really is disturbing.

WILPERT: So why would you say is the AfD being so successful? Also tell us a little bit about what it stands for?

GROSSMAN: AfD stands for Alternative for Germany. It’s a young party, about 2 years old. It’s built basically on racism. There are definite parallels to a certain candidate of the United States whose name I needn’t mention. It builds on fear, especially on the part of people who feel insecure in their lives and this is an awful lot of people by the way. More than East Germany and more than East Berlin than in the west. Insecure, will they keep their job, will they be able to keep their pension when the job is finished, will they be able to pay their rent?

These problems are worrying people and the suggestion from the media and in general, nationalist conversations is yea. Those immigrants are getting all kinds of good treatment and it’s at your cost. Which is not true but really gets around and gets enough people frightened that they say all the other parties are betraying us. We have to break out and work for our own party which is not breaking with us with is completely new and we’ll vote for them for this AfD and that has brought them very, very good results.

WILPERT: In a recent article of yours, you mention and you also just now said that suggested as much that it is part of a larger trend in Europe and that there is some kind of leadership role so to speak going on from Eastern Europe. Can you explain that a little bit as to how does this fit into a larger pattern that you’re saying is beginning or has its leadership being led from countries in Eastern Europe?

GROSSMAN: Yea actually I shouldn’t really have stressed Eastern Europe because the danger of this right wing group mostly in the form of parties which is by the way it gets its votes by being anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and especially anti-Muslimism. That’s their big call. The Islam is taking over our country, taking over our Europe, taking over the world, which is of course pure bologna. But this feeling and the parties which have grown out of it, started really to get strong in France with La Pen, in Britain, in the Netherlands, it’s strong in Scandinavia.

But in some countries especially Hungary and Poland and the three little Baltic countries, it’s basically taken over and their main line is we don’t want any of these refugees at all. We don’t want any of these–first of all has to be Christian, we don’t want any Muslims, we don’t want any troubles with refugees and don’t let them in. This has pushed the large majority in Germany where of course they have the same effect because the Germans said we don’t want to take them all. One is being played against the other all at the cost of these poor million and 2 million refugees. Many, many of them women with children with babies. Lots of young men too who’ve had nothing at home but war. What’s being done is one group being played against the other. In Eastern Europe it’s become especially successful.

WILPERT: Let’s turn to looking at more of the other side of the political spectrum. Die Linke, or Left Party, is apparently in a difficult position. That is on the one hand, it will be able to form perhaps a coalition government with Social Democrats and the Greens in the city of Berlin. But, even if it manages to win larger representation in the national legislature, in the Bundestag next year, it’s unclear if it will be able to form a coalition government on a national level. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on there. That is the challenges that Die Linke is facing currently, nationally.

GROSSMAN: First of all, in Berlin, of the 6 parties that are now in Berlin in the legislature, 3 lost. That was the Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel. That was the party which is strongest in Berlin which has the mayor job, that’s the Social Democrats. And the little Free Democrats who’ve managed to squeeze back. I’m sorry, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats lost. The Greens lost a little. The ones that won asides from the small party were the very far right wing Alternative for Germany, AfD, and the Left surprisingly. The Left came in as third strongest. And this seemed a very happy result but it means that in Berlin it will basically have to be part of the government.

No government can exist with only 2 parties because you need 50% and no two parties can make 50%. So it means that probably the Left will be in the government of the city-state of Berlin. Next year they are going to be national elections and the Social Democrats and the Greens see the only chance for them to gain the government is if they work together with the Left. 10 years ago this would’ve been impossible. Nobody wanted to even talk with the Left Party. Now this has changed. Of course it has changed in part because there are parts in the Left Party who are willing to make compromises to get into these governments in the city level and on the national level.

The big question is, and it’s an open question. Should you make compromises and if so how many compromises and how far should you go giving up basic principles in order to get into a government position with all the perks and the new conditions and better conditions that that involves. It’s a difficult question and there are certain principles that some people on the Left do not want to give up on.

For example, on the national level they say, no German troops should be sent outside of Germany. There are many already that are in Afghanistan and many other places. But that should be stopped. Germany troops have done enough damage in the last century, they shouldn’t be sent anywhere. They’re not there for a good purpose.

However, the other two possible partners, that’s the Greens and the Social Democrats say, unless the Left gives up this principle which it has, we will never accept any coalition with them. The question is should the Left give things up? Should it make compromises? Should it not? And this is a question which is being fought over and debated within the Left on the city level and on the national level, what to give up to get into a stronger position. How much should you stick to your principles even if it means not so much power and where will you lose the voters?

In my view, the only real correct way to win votes is to put up a fight, not on the government level so much but on the local level. On the street. In other words, to demonstrate against higher ranks. Against cutting pensions. In other words, making pension delaying them. Cutting jobs. There are many, many jobs. Germany doesn’t have a very big unemployment but an awful lot of the jobs are these temporary jobs, halftime jobs. Jobs which are not set and low pay jobs. People are worried. The thing that the Left Party should be doing most is fighting on those issues. It has joined in on fighting this big trade treaty in the United States and Europe. It’s called TTIP. It’s joined the fight on that. That’s the direction it should be going strongest in my view.

WILPERT: That’s actually what I was going to ask you about next. There was a major demonstration the day before the election last Saturday against the free trade agreements with the United States and also with Canada. But the big stumbling block in a way, especially since we’re talking about the possibility of forming a coalition on a national level between the Left Party and the Greens and the Social Democrats is of course, especially the Social Democrats are in favor of all these free trade agreements.

So I’m just wondering what’s going on there with the social democrats? They seem to have been losing votes, continuously but still maintain these relatively what seem to be unpopular position with regard to free trade. What’s your interpretation of what’s going on, on the Social Democratic side of the political system?

GROSSMAN: Well, first I’d like to say that the big, big demonstration in Berlin or the parade started off right below my window and there were estimated 70,000 people taking part. That’s an awful lot of people when you’re in the middle of it. It was really very, very inspiring. It started in pouring rain but soon the skies cleared. Everybody was happening. Thousands and thousands of flags and bannisters all against these trade deals. The one with the United States, the one with Canada. It was very inspiring especially because we heard there were also bid demonstrations in Hamburg and Frankfurt and Stuttgart, in Munich, in [Lubitsch], it was a good feeling.

But the Social Democrats the next day on Monday, a few days ago, voted in secret as to whether to back this, first this Canadian one. That’s the first one to come up and voted in favor of it which was really betraying the wishes of an awful lot of its members. A lot of the members of the Social Democratic Party which is strongest among the unions by the way. That’s where they get their votes. That’s where they get their strength. A lot of them are against these phony deals.

But the perdition is to support the Social Democrats and the Social Democrats have to keep more or less a leftish pro worker image if they want to get any votes. They’re trying to balance their way through on the one side not sounding right wing to keep their union people and their left wing people. But at the same time not to really take left wing oppositional positions. Positions really for the everyday working man woman in the country.

Their courses are very wavy. Towards election day they sound more and more left wing. Then if they get elected and they get into the government they tend to forget some of their promises and make a lot of compromises. We’ll see what happens in this year that’s coming. They’ve been moving further and further away from Angela Merkel but when the chips are down it looks often as if they don’t stick to the guns that they propound.

WILPERT: Well unfortunately we’re out of time but we’ll definitely get back to you about what’s going on in Germany in terms of the politics and the movements and so on. So thanks again so much Victor for having joined us on the Real News.

GROSSMAN: Thank you.

WILPERT: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.

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