Wed Feb 27th, 2008 at 03:50:09 AM EST
This is now the buzzword all across the German media. After the Left Party success in all of the last three regional elections, the beginning of a new era is finally dawning on everyone, with the need to create new types of coalitions.
In the prior four-party system, the basic options were:
- right-wing camp: Christian Democrats (CDU) (+ liberal Free Democrats (FDP))
- left-wing camp: Social Democrats (SPD) (+ Greens)
- Grand Coalition (CDU+SPD)
First in 2001 in Berlin, then after the 2005 federal elections, new options were in discussion, and now seriously at the table in Hessen and Hamburg:
- Black-Green: CDU+Greens
- Jamaica: CDU+FDP+Greens
- Traffic lights: SPD+FDP+Greens
- Red-Red-Green: SPD+Left Party+Greens
Though such complexities aren't exactly new to Scandinavian democracies and the Netherlands, with Germany's influence, the ideological frames of reference may change all across Europe.
The effect on the parties, more or less from right to left:
The conservatives are in a very paradoxical situation in the new system. While their loss of direct domination is the most apparent, it is just them who are in the most comfortable and safest situation in coalition pokers.
The Right long hoped that after Reunification, there'll be a right-wing structural majority. But the painful realisation that, to the contrary, there may be a left-wing structural majority, came swiftly after the Hessen elections. And the CDU indeed quickly adapted to the situation: Grand Coalition and Jamaica was advocated in Hessen; now in Hamburg, playing with the Black-Green option (alongside Grand Coalition again) already got Merkel's approval; and the CDU does everything to undermine the SPD's new options.
The CDU could face problems on the longer term: conservative voters' dissatisfaction with too many concessions to leftist coalitioners, and their longing for a clear conservative platform (see Martin's diary) which IMO may lead to another party on the right.
One way for this to happen may be an end to the regional separation of the Union parties. Presently, the CDU doesn't run in Bavaria, and its more socially conservative sister party, the CSU, only runs in Bavaria. The CSU repeatedly threatened to go federal.
In the three-party system preceding the rise of the Greens in the eighties, the FDP was a swing party, it drifted right and turned neoliberal only later. The CDU-only orientation will ensure irrelevance in opposition -- which was a good opportunity for FDP members advocating change to speak up.
In a SPIEGEL op-ed, long-time FDP member Gerhard Baum argues that the party should move on themes -- thematising not just Leistungsgerechtigkeit (c. 'performance justice', or "to each according to his performance"), but Verteilungsgerechtigkeit (distributive justice), too. For Hessen, while he doesn't think positively about traffic lights, he advocates working towards Jamaica -- by pushing the CDU to drop controversial outgoing PM Roland Koch.
Earlier this month, in a debate with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German-Greek double citizen and champion of reforming the FDP, discussed both Jamaica and traffic lights. He also reiterated his view that contrary to the current party leadership, young liberals are pro-environmentalist (his somewhat self-contradictory slogan is Porsche fahren und Umwelt schonen = dirve a Porsche and protect the environment), and would the FDP realise that, he predicts it could draw away a good part of the Greens.
As yet there is no move by the federal and regional party leaderships.
Hubert Kleinert, former Green politician from Hessen, is now an influential centrist-Green strategist as political professor and op-ed writer. Earlier he laid the groundwork for the first SPD-Greens coalitions, lately he does the same for Black-Green, with the city of Frankfurt being its so far most important realisation. After the Hamburg elections, Kleinert wrote an op-ed in SPIEGEL advocating Black-Green there. He argues that this would benefit the party by freeing it from 'dependence' on the left-wing camp, which includes the Left Party.
However, Black-Green is dangerous for the Greens: coalitions with the SPD already resulted in tough-to-stomach compromises, the CDU can only demand more, and could scare away the Green left. Especially in Hamburg: even if the local CDU is more progressive, so is GAL, the local Greens, with its alternative-left elements and still strong basis democracy (the party leadership has no monopoly on decisions).
Meanwhile, MEP Daniel "Dany le Rouge" Cohn-Bendit is the most outspoken Green advocate of Red-Red-Green, specifically an SPD-Greens minority government with Left Party outside support in Hessen. He claims that the left-wing structural majority is the actual wish of the voter.
Though himself rather liberal, lashing out against "neoliberalism" is now strong in Cohn-Bendit's rhetoric. In the exchange with Chatzimarkakis, he also pushes the FDP to abandon that line and get ready for traffic lights. The latter is what most top Greens advocated after Hessen, too. What no one considers seriously is the Jamaica option.
The greatest attention is paid to the SPD's take of the Red-Red-Green option.
I must stress one thing about the party. It is fundamental to post-WWII West German Social Democrat self-understanding that they are the democratic socialist counterpart to the East Bloc's dictatoral socialists. In this frame of reference, the Left Party and its partial precursor PDS can only be seen as heirs of the dictatorship, assumed still undemocratic. So re-thinking is especially hard in the West.
Nevertheless, the East German SPD was long forced to think again. In 2001, even Wessie Klaus Wowereit, himself a centrist, accepted PDS outside support to become mayor of reunified Berlin, and changed his Red-Green minority government to Red-Red in 2006. The successful, popular and thus influential Wowereit was the leading advocate of eliminating the Western Red-Red-Green taboo at least on regional level, while many on the party left thought similarly. Leading the opposition were Schröder's reformist circle (including the current federal economy and foreign ministers, Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier) and the party right, the so-called 'Seeheim circle'.
But the man who is credited with setting off the real debate a week before the Hamburg elections, and then achieving a change in direction, was party chairman and Rhineland-Palatinate state PM Kurt Beck. His chairmanship was built on achieving absolute majority in the regional parliament in difficult times for the SPD, in 2006. He is NOT from the partly left, he is a pragmatist who chose a left course because he sees votes that way. Before the Hessen elections, he was loundly anti-Left-Party.
The trial balloon surfaced as a news article in Neue Presse claiming Hessen SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti is considering accepting Left Party outside support.
Within the party, the abovementoned circles voiced their negative opinion. So did federal faction leader Peter Struck, and angrier criticism -- especially of timing -- came from both the last SPD mayor of Hamburg and the current candidate. Yet, even Ypsilanti's inner-party centrist rival in Hessen followed up his criticism with a pledge of 100% SPD support for her should it come to a vote.
However, there was a media frenzy over the issue, playing up internal debate into a terminal crisis, speaking of "storm of opposition in the SPD", a "Beck problem", "test of unity" and so on. The conservatives also took the opportunity to play outraged (forgetting about their own history of much more concrete cooperation with stronger and nastier extremists on their side, e.g. taking right-populist Schill into the Hamburg government). Altogether, the out-of-control ruckus may have costed the Hamburg SPD 2-3 percentage points.
Yet, one day after the elections, the media just rubbed their eyes as the trial balloon was adopted as official position:
|Rot-Rot-Grün-Debatte: Kritiker gehen vor Beck in die Knie - Naumann beklagt sich über "Lkw aus Mainz" - Politik - SPIEGEL ONLINE - Nachrichten||Red-Red-Green debate: critics fall on their knees before [SPD party boss Kurt] Beck - [Hamburg leading candidate Michael] Naumann complains about "truck from Mainz" [capital of Beck's home state Rhineland-Palatine]|
|Steinbrück, Steinmeier: War da was? Der Proteststurm gegen SPD-Chef Beck hört so plötzlich auf, wie er ausgebrochen war. Sämtliche Spitzengenossen stellen sich jetzt im Linkskurs-Streit hinter ihren Boss. Hamburgs Wahlverlierer Naumann allerdings beklagt sich über einen "Lkw aus Mainz", der alles "platt gemacht" habe.||[Federal finance minister Peer] Steinbrück, [federal foreign minister Hans-Walter] Steinmeier - was there anything? The storm of protest against SPD boss Beck ends as abruptly as it started. Now all top comrades line up behind their boss in the fight over the leftward direction. However, Hamburg's election loser Naumann complains about a "truck from Mainz" which "flattened everything".|
There was just one vote against in the 40-strong top body of the federal party, the comrades showed unity and discipline. The article interprets one detail as a Machiavellian trick by Beck: he stayed at home saying he catched cold, and let a deputy lead the conference -- and that deputy was Steinmeier, who thus could not lead an opposition. Here is how the actual paradigm shift looks like:
|"Sollte es nicht zu einer Koalition (mit FDP und Grünen) kommen, wird die SPD Hessen entscheiden, ob und gegebenenfalls wann sich Andrea Ypsilanti im Landtag zur Wahl stellt."||"Should a coalition [with FDP and Greens] fail, the Hessen SPD will decide if, and, should the case arise, when Andrea Ypsilanti will stand for election [as PM] in the regional parliament."|
Not a single word about the Left Party or coalitions. But, with the Left Party already having announced its support, just standing for election would assure that Ypsilanti becomes PM of a minority government. And the Hessen SPD is now free to do so. That's the end of the Left Party taboo in the West.
The quote also shows what I saw as an original intention of the trial balloon, though one that didn't exactly pan out: to pressure the FDP, to tell them that courting them for traffic lights is not the only option. Ever since the Hessen elections, SPD leaders have publicly, steadfastly, but unsuccessfully pushed the FDP to recognise its "citizen's obligation" to ensure there is a government (a rhetoric the CDU didn't dare to try on the Greens). Traffic lights obviously remains first preference, but the obstacle there is in the FDP.
The Left Party can largely sit back and enjoy the show. They must have obviously considered the new realities and possibilities long ago. The Hessen and federal Left Party announced its support for a PM Ypsilanti already before the elections. And for them, just shifting the discourse is enough of an achievement, they don't need to enter a government or exert influence by tolerating it.
The problem for the Left Party is consolidating its fresh, undisciplined and untested Western branches, so that they won't disintegrate in scandals and internal fights. For that, even the compromises involved in giving outside support to SPD+Greens may bring difficulties.
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Prior German regional elections/left swing diaries: