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May 2011, Week 4

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Bulletin No. 26

Breaks and Bruises in Bremen

By Victor Grossman,

May 22, 2011
Submitted to Portside by the author

Berlin

If any of your ancestors came to the USA from northern or
eastern Europe there's a good chance they left from the
German city of Bremen or its portside adjunct Bremerhaven. If
you were ever a uniformed member of the US occupation army in
Germany, the chances are even better that you arrived (like
me) via Bremerhaven (and Bremen). Today most shipyards are a
thing of the past; it is struggling to climb out of its heavy
debt as a container port. And it is both the smallest German
state and the poorest of the former West German area. Its
heavily working class population (today pronounced 'mid-dle
class') has made it a stronghold of the Social Democratic
Party, without interruption, from the very beginning.

The Sunday election was true to that tradition. Nobody was
surprised that it got 38.1 % of the vote and will keep the
same mayor. Nor were many eyebrows raised at the big gains of
the Greens, now riding on a huge popularity wave since the
Japanese atomic disaster alarmed Germans more than anyone
else, it would seem, and since shutting down reactors has
always been a main Green talking point. And the Greens,
though aging a bit around the edges, and no longer the
radicals they once were, still appeal with their informality
to young people. Since Bremen gave the right to vote this
year to 16 and 17-year-old  teenagers (the first and only
such attempt in state elections) this also helped this party
to gain a fat increase of over 6 points for a grand total of
23 %.

Balancing such joy was the bitter disappointments for just
those two parties which form the federal government. Angela
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union got its worst result in
years, with 21.5 %, which put them, almost incredibly, behind
the Greens in third place.

What about their national partners, the big-biz Free
Democratic Party (also known here, strangely enough, as the
'Liberals'!). For weeks they got top media coverage when they
threw out their leader of ten years Westerwelle (who remains
as unimpressive Foreign Minister) in favor of the charismatic
young Philip Rösler, of Vietnamese birth but German
upbringing, who in one clever speech after another claimed
his party would finally move out of the doldrums. And what
happened? It stayed in the doldrums, getting only 3 % and
thus not a single seat in the city-state legislature. All the
happy PR effort seems to have been in vain, while party
leaders, forcing a smile, say 'Just wait for the next
election!'

Thus the ruling parties on the national level both lost out
in Bremen, reflecting growing dissatisfaction. Exports may be
doing just great, the banks, prospering as of old, are again
handing out 6 and 7 digit bonuses to their happy bosses. Even
joblessness is officially easing. But low-paid, part-time,
precarious jobs have multiplied and the social network is
sagging sadly, with Merkel now proposing to raise retirement
age to 69 even before it has been fully raised to 67. And
Bremen has far more than its share of the underemployed and
jobless.

What is largely forgotten, it would seem, is that both Social
Democrats and the Greens, when in opposition on the national
level, make progressive sounding noises, but once they get
into office they almost always water down their juicy
promises. They helped raise the retirement age, lower taxes
on the wealthy, weaken the once so exemplary medical system,
make things tougher for the jobless and sent troops to
Afghanistan. Both echo 'Bomb Libya' slogans even though
Westerwelle and Merkel refrained from joining in. And the
Greens, while stressing ecology and atomic dangers, almost
always forget people's social needs; indeed, they have become
a party whose members are most often high-salaried
professionals. But in Bremen, I should add, their shared
reign has been fairly mild thus far, despite the weight of a
huge debt.

But what about the Left? Four years ago Bremen was the first
West German state where it cleared that 5 % hurdle (with over
8 %) and got into the legislature. That was the first of a
happy series. But this past year has seen nothing but
downturns. Recent attempts to break through in two more
western states failed, it barely stayed on in Hamburg. And in
Bremen?

Well, it made it! It got close to 6 % and 5 or 6 seats in the
legislature. But this was a loss of almost 3 percent, a lot
for such a small party. What has been going wrong?

It has partly been the media attacks or, as in Bremen, almost
total silence about its election campaign. But the party
itself has supplied far too much ammunition, arguing,
backbiting, jockeying and moving far too close to splitting,
an old ailment of leftwing groups, parties or movements. One
side in the dispute, stronger in western areas, is more
militant and demands certain conditions before even
considering coalitions with Greens or Social Democrats (both
of whom abhor the very idea of such a coalition if at all
avoidable).It wants sharper attacks again privatization of
utilities and a greater stress on future anti-capitalist
goals. And it wants the party program to oppose any use of
German soldiers outside German borders.

The other side, far stronger in East Germany where it often
commands 20-25 % of the vote, hopes for a share in coalition
governments, such as currently exist in the city-state of
Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg. To achieve
this it is ready to tone down demands.

These questions, undoubtedly important, involve disputes
which have been going on for over a century. But today
Germany needs a unified fight to improve conditions for all
those people, many of them children, who face poverty here
and now. The Merkel government is trying to use the European
Union to raise the pension age, cut vacation length and force
wages down in all member countries, including Germany.
Resistance is all too often misdirected: neo-fascist parties,
all specializing in Muslimophobia, are growing alarmingly all
over Europe: Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland,
Belgium, even France, Italy and England! The Left should be
in  the lead in fighting back, in concert with young people
in Spain and England, working people ion Greece and Portugal
(and Madison) and in the Arab world. Things are moving faster
and faster, but require across-the-borders coordination and
cooperation.

Some members and groups of the Left have been fighting as
hard as they can, defying the media. But there has been
constant quarreling about the contents of the future program
and the correct strategy in situations which have not yet
arrived. The Left is too rarely seen out in the streets with
loud and clear messages on today's issues. In Bremen it
scraped through. Will it find its balance before it fades
even further? It is urgently needed!

Note: Thanks to a complicated election system  the numerical
results will probably change to a small degree.

___________________________________________

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