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Germany after the Elections: Why the Linke is good for democracy

by Saturday Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 03:15:41 PM EST

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

For quite a long time now, I have been planning to do a diary on an issue that has been widely underexposed since the Linke's amazing ascent this year. This is a diary about the new left, the old extreme right and (neo-)proletarian voter behaviour.

I contend:

The rise of the Linke has prevented a rise of extreme-right, neo-fascist parties, first of all the NPD, a rise which would have been inevitable without the Linke. The Linke served as a collecting pit for disenchanted poor and (neo-)proletarian voters who otherwise would have turned to the right as a means of protesting against a system that holds no place for them any more.

I guess you are more interested in the developments of the current coalition-building poker, but for now, I ask you to press the stop button and rewind to around 2002. Gerhard Schröder had just narrowly escaped an embarrasing defeat against Edmund Stoiber, and the demoscopic pundits were analysing the outcome.

The demoscopes had really ugly news.

They had found out that a huge voter migration had taken place: A large part of the SPD's traditional clientele - the low-income workers, the less educated, the non-bourgeois voters - had turned their back on the once-was "worker's party" and voted CDU instead. It was a protest against the SPD-policy of the "Neue Mitte" (New Center), Schröder's version of Blair's New Labour. An economic and social policy of which you could hardly tell the difference to liberal-conservative policies. The 2002 elections had been mainly about the reform (i.e.: cuts) of unemployment benefits and the integration of unemployment benefits and social welfare. People most frightened of this reform were, understandably, those who already were poor and unemployed as well as those workers with "simple tasks" who have to face the highest probability of losing their jobs. Ironically, they did so despite the fact that there was no rational reason for them to vote CDU, for they could not expect any better from CDU's policies. They did it because it was the only viable alternative for them, the only way of expressing protest - at that moment.

Why was that ugly news?

At first glance, it was just normal voter migration like it is supposed to happen in a democracy. But, projected into the near future, many commentators came to ugly conclusions (and I agreed with them): What if CDU regains control of the government in four or eight years, and these people realise that they did not vote in their own interest? What if they, then, realise that none of the current parties (CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Greens; PDS not included because they had failed the 5 % threshold) represents their interests?

German historical experience commands that, in this situation, you have to turn your head to the right and have a close look at what is going on there. Indeed, the parties of the nationalist right (NPD, DVU, Republikaner and the Schill Partei [RIP, yay!]) were already salivating like a Pawlowian dog, expecting to gain from slogans like "Jobs for Germans", "No money for migrants" ect. For, when (neo-)proletarian voters would have unsucessfully tried all democratic alternatives, they would become disenchanted of the whole democratic-political system and embrace an authoritarian alternative. Like 1930s reloaded. The right wing lacked only two things: Unity and a charismatic leader. The former problem was solved when the Schill Partei crashed and NPD and DVU agreed to not compete against each other in the same elections any more. The right's latter problem has not been solved until today, but then again: you can never know what scummy figures can suddenly emerge from the brownish mud.

So, in my (and many other people's) opinion, there was reason to be seriously concerned, as long as economic recession prevailed. But this year, the problem suddenly vanished with the unexpected emergence of the Linke, the union of left wing-SPD break away WASG and former GDR socialist PDS. For (neo-)proletarian strata, voting for the Linke now has become a way of protesting  against the policy of social cuts.

Which is hell of a lot better than voting for NPD. You might object that Oskar Lafontaine, one of the Linke's leading figures, made some desplicable remarks about foreign workers. But this was mainly a medially amplified misstatement. Yes, Lafontaine did talk about foreign workers in Germany who were payed less than the minimum wages, and he criticised it. But he did not do it in a way a right-wing politician would, i.e.: Blaming the foreign workers for the whole mess. Instead, he regarded these foreign workers also as victims and blamed domestic employers.

In contrast to the NPD, there can not be any doubt that the Linke's personnel is completely adherent to the principles of democracy, civility and humanity. The socially and economically disadvantaged substrata of German society now have been given the possibility of voting for a democratic alternative. The right's hope of being able to identify economic misery with the democratic and pluralistic system has been destroyed. In this sense, a successful Linke is in the best interest of German democracy. For the moment, I am tempted to say that the Linke arranged for a happy end in a serious situation for German political system and political culture.

Some numbers:

Shares of votes for right wing parties in German federal elections since 1990:

2005  2,2%
2002  1,8%
1998  3,3%
1994  1,9%
1990  2,4%

Vote shares oscillating around 2 % for right wing parties are "normal" (still, if you ask me, that every 50th person you meet is statistically a potential nationalist, protofascist right wingnut, is quite frightening). I expect the Linke to function as a stabiliser of this oscillator that could otherwise crash, with right wing votes potentially jumping over the 5 % threshold.

I have been having this feeling in a good number of the European country votes,  that if the Left does go on the offense and actively address issues of concern to the people, then the Right will. I hadn't thought of the angle you discuss here, but it makes a lot of sense to me. As usual, astute political commentary here, thanks again Saturday!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Sep 25th, 2005 at 11:05:05 AM EST
I agree that the Linke is better than the NPD but that's not exactly much of an endorsement.

Your statement about Lafontaine's comments is a whitewash. Note that the 'foreigners', particularly those from Turkey (first thing that comes to mind in Germany when referring to foreign workers) are mostly people who have either been born in Germany or who have lived there for decades. In a normal country the vast majority of these 'foreigners' would long since be citizens. One major accomplishment of Red-Green has been the reform of the citizenship laws, however, it will take a long time for them to remedy the legacy of the old one. And Lafontaine seems to be more along the lines of the right than the left when he calls for stripping citizenship from foreigners deemed insufficiently assimilated.  He also is a big believer in racial homogeneity seeing the rise in non-white populations as a distinctly negative phenomenon, pointing Germans to the predicted non-white majority in the US as evidence for just how terrible immigration is.  As for not blaming immigrants - well the right also often says that it is understandable that poor people should want to work in wealthy Germany. And like Lafontaine, the neo-fascists of the NPD also see immigration as a conspiracy of the capitalist elites against the nation.  I have no idea what the hell happened to Lafontaine over the past several years but the results are ugly.  As a whole Lafontaine has clearly adopted the neo-fascist line on immigration. The only thing that makes the Linke better than the NPD in this regard is that most of its leaders fortunately don't share Lafontaine's beliefs.

by MarekNYC on Sun Sep 25th, 2005 at 01:07:58 PM EST
Can you explain this with links to the laws?
In a normal country the vast majority of these 'foreigners' would long since be citizens.

I wonder how many normal countries Europe might have? How do you become a citizen of Great Britain, France, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal, if you are a foreigner? If you are a citizen of the EU, are you still considered a foreigner, if you switch countries within the EU for work and residency? In how far is it different when you are a "Chinese foreigner" in Germany versus an "Italian foreigner" or a "Rumanian foreigner"?

Are there really European countries that have laws like the US, whereby you can become a citizen after having been a permanent resident with permission to work in the US for seven years? I don't know about Canada, but isn't the difference that most European countries don't have the equivalent of a green card, i.e. an unconditional permission to work and reside in the country for an unlimited time?

And how can you strip someone of his citizenship, once you had it? Wouldn't that person become "Staatenlos" (a person without a nationality)?

by mimi on Mon Sep 26th, 2005 at 12:25:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What I'm specifically referring to is the distinction between the jus solis and jus sanguinis, i.e. those who base the right to citizenship on where people were born and grew up vs. those who base it on blood. The jus soli tradition has been primarily that of France, Britain, and the various immigrant Commonwealth states.  Much of the rest of Europe traditionally relied on the jus sanguinis, though in most cases it was a moot point in practice since immigration was historically minimal. The Germans actually switched to a very hardline ethnocentric citizenship in the late Kaiserreich, appalled at all those horrible Slavs and Ostjuden that were flooding in (in actual fact many of both groups came from Prussia's eastern provinces rather than from abroad but whatever, it's perception that counts)  That law remained in effect until a few years ago. If you were the descendant of German speakers who moved to Romania back in the Middle Ages, you had the right to citizenship. If you were a 'Turk' born and raised in Germany by parents who had lived there since childhood, you had no such right.

 There is no necessary correlation between the work and residency rights conferred by a green card, and the naturalization laws. Every country I know of has permanent residency status - that's what most of those 'foreigners' in Germany have. In Switzerland you have the 'C Permit' which gives you permanent residency and full employment and social benefit rights - plus the right to apply for, but not necessarily get citizenship, if you meet a set of criteria.  The countries with what I call 'normal' citizenship laws lay out the preconditions for citizenship, and if you meet them, you have the right to citizenship.

To give an example of why I say the old approach is so screwed up.  In the late eighties there were about 1.6 million people from Turkey in Germany, of those, even back then, some 400,000 had been born there. Almost none had citizenship. By the time Red-Green came to power that number had gone above two million, with the proportion of Germany born and bred even higher. Still, almost none had citizenship.   Instead, as it is there are 1.9 million Turkish citizens living as permanent citizens in Germany, over one third of them are German born. That does not include the the 700,000 or so German citizens of Turkish descent.(2003) A majority of the 'Turkish' German citizens are, I believe, also German born. If the Schroeder government had not changed the laws, in the face of vociferous opposition from the CDU/CSU, we'd be now seeing third generation 'foreigners' reaching adulthood in Germany with close to half of all 'Turks' having been born in Germany.

From what I understand you are an immigrant yourself, here in the US.  Would you find it normal if your grandchildren were considered foreigners a half century after you came to the US?

PS. If you have an interest in the historical development of the two concepts of citizenship and nationhood from the nineteenth century to the eighties I'd recommend:

Brubraker, Rogers Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany Cambridge, MA 1992

by MarekNYC on Mon Sep 26th, 2005 at 02:36:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I might add that the old German system seems to have been close to the Swiss system. Insofar that Turkish citizens living permanently in Germany could also apply for citizenship if they met the criteria.
Which were pretty high IIRC.
Language test, proof that you have renounced your "old" citizenship etc.

I´m not sure but I seem to remember that one additional problem was/is Turkish laws?
If you don´t/didn´t have Turkish citizenship, you could/can have inheritance problems in Turkey?

by Detlef (Detlef1961_at_yahoo_dot_de) on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 03:59:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry to come back only this late. Your answer is so comprehensive that I can only thank you with all my respect.

Obviously, I am very much for a solution of the integration of immigrants into Germany on a basis that is NOT based on blood. Hadn't we raised a bloody hell in the past on the basis of "Blut und Boden" policies?

Definitely everyone born in Germany should have a right to German citizenship and also should not lose its citizenship of its parents. If the parents themselves have two different citizenships (meaning they are a mixed nationality - both of them other nationality than the German one -) then the parents should have the right to decide which parent's nationality should passed along from parent to the child, in other words which second nationality other than the German one the child could keep in addition. Let's say you had an Indian father and a Portugese mother, both living and working their whole adult lives in Germany, their children should have the right to German citizenship and one additional citizenship of their parents.

Every country I know of has permanent residency status - that's what most of those 'foreigners' in Germany have.

I don't think that this is right, or at least it wasn't until the 1980. Most 'foreigners' had renewable residency and working permissions, even if they were married to Germans, studied in Germany and worked in Germany their whole professional life-time, they never got permanent residence status that the US for example granted me after having won the Green Card Lottery in 1987. I understand that Green Cards today are not anymore permanent, I guess I am one of the last lucky ones.

My brother-in-law, for example, studied, lived and worked his whole life in Germany, married to my German sister, and never got an unlimited work-and residency permission. He had no difficulties though to get his extensions regularly for another five years every five years. But I remember still the times in Germany where German mothers, married to 'foreigners' had to fear that their own children couldn't get German citizenship, because the citizenship according to German law was decided not only on blood, but on the blood of the father exclusively. Thank God those laws don't exist anymore.

Ha, my grandchildren? They can be whatever they want to be. I haven't asked for US citizenship yet, though I am allowed to do so, my son made a conscious decision to become a US citizen and my grand children, God willing, will have their full rights to decide what they want to be, wherever my son might raise them.

On an emotional level, the question to which country a person, who lived in two different cultures and nations during age 10 to 18, is loyal to, is a very difficult question for that person to answer. I am all for never forcing a person to make a decision about it and granting that person to decide to either have both citizenships or to make a decision to one nationality freely and of his own choice.

Thanks for bringing me up-to-date on the situation of the kids of Turkish parents living in Germany. I wasn't aware that the bloody nationality issues are still bloody problems for so many. And thanks for reading material !!!

by mimi on Thu Sep 29th, 2005 at 01:00:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sorry to answer so late.

Focusing solely on Lafontaine is contraproductive when trying to assess the role of the Linke in a wider political context. Although I think that many people (most hypocritically the CDU/CSU) deliberately understood Lanfontaine that way, I acknowledge that he potentially could be understood as a xenophobe. But, anyway, the Linke is not Lafontaine. Have a look at the Linke's election manifesto:

"Germany is an immigration country. People from all over the world come here to us - but immigration law is affected by defense and exclusion. An migration and immigration policy which is able to shape the cultural diversity of our society is needed. Not a German "leading culture" but basic and human rights, binding everyone, have to form the basis of our living together. A democratic immigration policy has to put immigrants on par. Laws have to prevent that they could be abused for social and wage dumping. Migrants have to be paid the same wages for the same work. Investments have to be made in learning language, cultural institutions, integrational help and social work. (...)

We advocate a modern citizenship law: Every person born in Germany has to be given German citizenship. Art. 116 GG has to be changed with regard to the diverse ethnic affiliations of the Federal Republic's citizens."

In the case of the Linke, even disregarding our disagreement over the meaning of Lafontaine's statements, overemphais on personality is as much an obstacle to understanding party politics as in any case else. Even if he wanted to "adopt the neo-fascist line on integration", he would not succeed, because it is against everything the PDS, by far the bigger part of the Linke, stood for and stands for.

by Saturday (geckes(at)gmx.net) on Mon Sep 26th, 2005 at 04:56:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Saturday, I agree with you that the Linke as a whole does not share Lafontaine's beliefs. And as I said in a discussion with DoDo I do not find their program extremist. It is to the left of my own views, but so what, the FDP is well to the right of mine but I don't have a principled objection to them being in government (a Mollemann fronted FDP would be a different story). What I object to is a party whose Western side is represented by Lafontaine, and whose Eastern side is full of ex SED functionaries.  Clearly you don't find that reason to boycott them. Fair enough. However, I'd think you'd at least understand the reasoning behind it - it is analogous to a moderate right winger rejecting a party dominated by ex Pinochet or Franco operatives and a racist as the most visible non-ex dictatorship flunky. The good thing is that the SED problem will slowly decline as time goes on.
by MarekNYC on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 05:09:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We have seen the opposite in France, with the decline of the communist party, replaced amongst the popular classes by not voting or voting for Le Pen's National Front (now the strongest party of all amongst blue collar workers). So there is something to your point.

I agree that it is better to have these votes tothe extreme left than to the extreme left, and I agree with Marek above that you get some pretty nasty stuff (populist and nationalist, and usually protectionist and corporatist).

To me today, the most relevant distinction in politics today is between the social-liberals and the national-populists, i.e. the educated, urban, richer centrists (the bobos) and the rural and/or blue collar/employees poorer traditionalists and nationalists (the dittoheads). Very arrogant of me, of course, until you realise that the bobos win few elections...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Sep 25th, 2005 at 03:26:31 PM EST
In my opinion, the examples of France, Italy and Austria, and to a lesser extent other western European countries, point to the scary fact that about 15% of the European public is at the authoritarian/xenophobic end of the spectrum.

The CDU/CSU in Germany and the PP in Spain have successfully unified the right so that they contain the extreme right ("contain" both in the sense of having them within and of keeping them under control). In fact, the only way these parties remain competitive in the face of a sociological "left" majority is that they have unified the right while the left remains fragmented.

Sometimes authoritarian/xenophobic tendencies express themselves at the "left" side of the spectrum. For instance, the Spanish Basque country is the only region of Spain without skin heads, but that is because the violent youth culture which one would usually associate with the extreme right expresses itself through the ETA-inspired (hence "socialist" or "left") "Kale Borroka" (Basque for "street violence"). In fact, ETA sympathisers make up anywhere between 10% and 15% of the vote (again the magical figure of 15%).

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 26th, 2005 at 09:44:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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