The German Social Democrats’ defeat in the North Rhine-Westphalia Land election on Sunday was not unexpected, but its scale was – and now Germany is gearing up for an early general election after Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder decided that the only way out is to appeal for a new mandate.
Schroeder’s problem is the unpopularity of his liberalising economic reform programme among the SPD’s core supporters, who stayed away from the polls on Sunday in droves. The workers don’t see cutting welfare benefits, reducing workers’ rights at work and championing free trade as the way to reduce German unemployment, currently running at nearly five million (12 per cent of the workforce).
On the other hand, disillusioned working-class former-SPD supporters didn’t on the whole vote for the much-hyped leftist WASG (Electoral Alternative: Work and Social Justice) list. So Schroeder has flung down the gauntlet: it’s either vote for the SPD and get a managed transition to a less-generous welfare state or vote CDU/CSU and have much nastier market medicine forced down your throat.
So we’re going to witness the bizarre spectacle of an SPD campaign fought on hard class-solidarity rhetoric (there will be very little holding hands with the SPD’s Green coalition partners, on which click here) with the key message that it’s better to have your own lot being mean bastards than the conservatives.
But at risk of alienating all my German comrades, I’m afraid Schroeder is right. Martin Kettle’s piece in the Guardian today is seriously flawed in that it seems to claim that the choice between preserving a generous welfare state in western Europe and competing economically with the US and the far east is a zero-sum game. But Kettle's basic point is sound. Germany has to compete economically, and to do that it needs to change.