||Interview by Jim Smith with
Head of the International Relations Department of the German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)
Oct. 8, 1999 at the PDS Karl Liebneckt Haus, Berlin
JS. What is the current political situation for the party? I know there are elections coming up on Sunday. What do you expect the outcome to be?
HS. It will be last election in this century for the PDS. The concluding phase of a certain round of elections to the Lander (state) parliaments and to the House of Deputies in Berlin. They are being held one year after the federal elections to the Bundestag when there had been a change in the power structure in Germany going from the then ruling Christian Democrats and Liberals party to a left-wing coalition government of the Social Democrats party and Green party of Germany. The success of these elections to the Bundestag last year had been mainly based on expectations of the German people to change policy, to change the neoliberal model of government, economy, politics, social sphere in Germany.
One year after these elections it was shown to many people in Germany that Social Democracy and the Green party were more or less continuing the policies carried on by the Christian Democratic and Liberal parties. It was a very great disappointment for the German population. The prospect of a left-wing government had been to correct the political line and social policy toward more social justice in the environment, for example, or the question of nuclear energy production. But if fact with the then chief of the Social Democratic party and finances, Oskar Lafontaine, Germanys policy became one of fulfilling the interests of the big enterprises rather than rebuilding the social fabric destroyed by the neoliberal Kohl government. Since March or April of this year, it has become very clear to the public that the Schroeder government will be in confrontation with the broad interests of the people of Germany.
The recent elections in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia prove that the people wont vote for a party that doesnt fulfill its stated aims. In the elections up to now the big winner is the Christian Democrats and the big losers are the Social Democrat and Green party. The second big winner of these elections is the PDS. We have had a campaign for more social justice for the unemployed, the socially weak and for young people. The PDS for the first time is linked in public opinion as a political party that stands for social justice. In the East, we have won that contest with the Social Democratic party and are mainly viewed as being a party of poor people and small enterprises. These people are looking for a way to express themselves in politics and to be respected for their lives and their jobs by society. This is a problem because of the different heritage of the former GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany.
There has been a bad social and economic situation especially in the east lands. Its reflected in a psychological feeling of people that they are not as well off as the people living in the west. The PDS, from the very beginning, fought for such people and for a real unity of Germany. Even with German unification the different treatment of people east and west means that the government is not attempting to overcome these differences. Instead, both the Kohl and Schroeder governments have reproduced these differences. The public media in Germany and abroad is full of articles and statements that the so-called wall today is higher than it was ten years ago. I wouldnt agree fully with such an approach but it helps to underscore the real interest of the people of the east to be honestly treated by society. To be treated as normal citizens.
That may be a long answer, but there have been remarkable shifts in the political landscape in Germany today. Try to understand the changes are based on the moods and the thinking of people and in their psychological situations because you cant understand it only by the economic or social conditions. A lot of people are living better than in the past and are not limited to being in one country. They have the chance to exchange real opinions with other people, but nevertheless all these economic and social changes are connected with the wishes and hopes of people to build a society as they had wanted earlier. They had the experience of it being stepped on and they now want to use a new chance to have a new more just and fulling society. Most of people who feel this way are voting for the PDS because they are very disappointed that the Social Democrats and Greens are not turning their election programs into reality.
The Christian Democrats are making use of the situation by giving very simple answers to the problems of the people. For example, in the elections to the Berlin Deputy House, the polls give them 42 percent. The Social Democrats today are at 19 percent in the polls. Our party is at about 17 percent. The Greens are about 12 percent. (The PDS won 17.7 percent of the vote, including 39.4 percent in East Berlin. It was the leading party in 30 of 32 East Berlin constituencies.)
JS. Would that be the highest vote for the PDS?
HS. Yes. Last time we had 13.2 percent.
JS. What are the trends in the rest of the country?
HS. In Thuringia, there were elections three weeks ago. There, for the first time, PDS gained second place. A week later in Saxony, PDS also won second place, over the Social Democrats. We are not against the Social Democrats in the election campaign itself, but the SDP lost their voters because they were not finding an answer to the problems I described earlier. Our party got repeat voters as well as new voters. We even got the votes from those who had previously said they were not interested in voting. Yet, the voter turnout was lower than in the past. We managed to gain in total votes while the Social Democrats and Green parties lost votes. Most of their loss was gained by the Christian Democrats, but part went to our party and the biggest part abstained.
This is a danger to democracy itself. You know the situation in the United States when you have such low participation that you cannot honestly speak about the government or president representing the people. In Germany and other European Union countries, a growing number of people are abstaining from the elections. Although the PDS has entered the European parliament, our party too hasnt succeeded in attracting all those who are abstaining. We are seeing some of the smallest turnouts for any EU elections. A lot of people just arent interested in the elections, and our party too, hasnt been able to attract the abstainers.
Nevertheless, after the elections in Thuringia and Saxony, an absolute majority government has been achieved by the Christian Democrats. In Berlin, there is a danger that this will happen too. After the elections in Brandenburg, there is now a coalition government for the first time. Before it was a majority government by the Social Democrats but they lost dramatically. The SPD fell from about 53 percent to 34 percent. Now they have to form a coalition in order to govern. Their coalition is with the CDU. The policy of the Social Democrats is that they are closer to the Christian Democrats than to the PDS. It is very clear to people that they dont want a policy breaking with the neoliberal model.
JS. Is it a national policy of the Social Democrats not to form coalitions with the PDS?
HS. Before the elections, we said we were ready to coalesce with the Social Democrats under certain conditions leading to more social justice, education and job training for youth, which is a big problem. There are thousands of young people who have no way of getting job training. In the Brandenburg elections, the prime minister said the Social Democrats were ready for coalition talks with both the Christian Democrats and the PDS. But already after the first round of talks it was clear that they intended to go into coalition with the Christian Democrats. In Saxony, the Social Democrats fell to about 10 percent of the vote. This is the worst vote for the Social Democrats since their founding in 1860. Saxony was the birthplace of Social Democracy. We do not want a very weak Social Democratic party. But we are witnessing an abandonment of the social democratic principles by that party. That is the main reason why they are losing.
JS. Much like the Labour Party in Britain?
HS. Yes. Maybe even more so. The Social Democrats are a very interesting party because you have very different conditions in the different landers (states) according to the federal system. There is a possibility that the SPD could revive in the base and grassroots level but not from the federal leadership. In two landers we have received cooperation from the Social Democrats - in Mekenburg, where there is a coalition government and in Saxony Anheit, where there is a minority Social Democratic government backed by the PDS.
JS. Is there much anti-communist propaganda by the other parties against the PDS?
HS. I wouldnt say you have much in the eastern landers but, of course, you do at the federal level. There the PDS is only mentioned as coming from the GDR and the old Socialist Unity Party. They neglect our achievements, our programs and our organizational structure of today. In the west, our biggest problem is that only about 5,000 of our 90,000 members are there. So the propaganda against us has more effect in the west because many people there dont know us.
JS. Tell us something about the organization structure and how it is different from the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the German Democratic Republic?
HS. The PDS is a real break from the old, vanguard model and the system of democratic centralism. Our main conclusion of the breakdown of the GDR and the socialist system that it tried to build up in our country was that there was a very great lack of democracy. The party members and sympathizers couldnt, in reality, take part in forming the policy. Of course, it had been there in principle with democratic centralism but, if fact, the ruling politburo and central committee controlled things. And even the central committee didnt have any power. Things were decided by the politburo, and even there it was the general secretary who said what the policy would be. This organizational structure lead to the failure of the socialist system in the GDR.
We had to find new forms to attract people to take part in developing policy and carrying out party policy. We used to say, the party is where our member is. That was often not true. But today, the PDS is only based on the activity of its members. We made a very clear break with the principle of democratic centralism and opened the party to the outside.
We implemented a system of working groups, of interest groups, of platforms. These party structures are open to party members and sympathizers who are interested in taking part in forming policy. For instance, we have an ecological platform, a working group of industrial and economic policy, a working group of young people, one on disabled people. This means that beyond the normal party structure of local, regional levels to the federal level, we have another structure, a political structure. These working groups are at both the federal and local levels.
JS. I saw an office across the hall with a nameplate, the Communist Platform. Is that a platform aimed at influencing the direction of the party?
HS. All these platforms and working groups have the right to take part in forming the party policy. Of course, the Communist Platform also has a certain influence. In the early days of the PDS, we also had a social democratic platform and a so-called third way platform as well. The only ideological platform remaining is the Communist Platform. It is interested in bringing about more discussion of original communist ideas.
JS. This would have been called a faction in the old days?
HS. Now they are accepted. The Communist Platform has maybe 1,000 members. Today, the mass media probably has more influence on our members than the theoretical books. But for me it is interesting to have such a platform in the party because it is part of our effort to be a pluralistic party. This involves trying to understand what other thinking is about. You have the need for discussion. It is now a tradition to use pluralism as a way of forming our policy. Sometimes it is very crazy. It can give you headaches. It can appear as contradictions to the public. But we dont want to repeat the old mistakes of the Socialist Unity Party.
JS. What is the view of the PDS on the NATO intervention and bombing in Yugoslavia?
HS. The PDS was the only German party that clearly stood against the NATO aggression in Yugoslavia. We said that there should be no war effort coming from German soil. It was a Left-Green government that pushed Germany into participation in that war. It lead to the disillusionment of many people who had voted for this government. And then they sent more soldiers into East Timor. We are against this because we dont believe there is a need for them. What is needed is economic aid to help the people of East Timor. The government is signaling that Germany will take part as a leading power in any United Nations or NATO force in the world. We are against such a role for Germany. There is no need for German soldiers to be sent abroad. We can serve our international obligations with our economic resources. We should try to prevent the outbreak of conflicts instead of sending troops after the conflicts have broken out. This is our main foreign policy approach. It is supported by large numbers of people in the country.
JS. How much time does PDS devote to electoral versus nonelectoral activities?
HS. We are participating in election campaigns not just to have a campaign but to work with the people to develop a political and concrete project that takes into account what is needed at the federal, state and community levels. Protecting the interests of the people and projecting solutions is the central goal of the party and our election campaigns. We say the PDS is an everyday party not just a party of elections.
JS. How do you balance the struggles for reform with the long-range goal of socialism?
HS. Socialism will only come to Germany when it comes to the world. I dont think we are in a condition when we can dream about a socialist system without first having more social justice. But we can have a policy leading step by step to the long range goal and creating opportunities for people to take their fate into their own hands. Democratic socialism is a goal, a method and a way. It is important for people today to fight for their interests and rights, for example, when an enterprise is closed by its management. They must fight at that enterprise and also reach out to other workers at the same employers across Europe. By fighting together they are taking a step toward socialism. It has to grow out of the activity of the people, themselves.
We have to make it clear that it is possible to break with the neoliberal policies of the Kohl government. It is not the fate of people or the normal development of human kind. It is only a certain stage of development. This is why disappointment has developed with the Social Democratic government. Many people have turned back to the Christian Democrats since, at least, they know what they will get with them. It has caused a discussion in our party on whether we should participate in government based on the present day conditions. Are we losing our dream of social justice by doing so? These are crucial questions to the membership of our party. Nevertheless, if we are saying that we have to work to give people power to themselves, then we must participate.
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