Left party (PDS) scores in Berlin election

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Posted by on October 22, 2001 at 16:07:37:


Victor Grossman (in Berlin)

The Left hasn't had much cause to celebrate these days. But the media said the tent in front of Berlin's City Hall was where the Party of Democratic Socialism - the PDS - was spending election night and there was no doubt about the cheers reverberating into the cool October air.

Inside the huge tent - if you could squeeze in - there was not much October air; it was jam-packed and hot. But no one wanted to leave. Every time the big monitors showed a candidate or prominent PDS personality arriving - only those closest in the crowd could see the small stage - a cheer went up. And when the monitors switched to TV and more election returns came in, those cheers resounded even louder. For the PDS - averaging about 16-18 percent in Berlin elections till now but bravely calling for "over 20 percent" this time, a goal even devoted members smiled at, with the polls inching up from 17 percent - had fooled just about everybody. For a while it looked as if the PDS might even pass the Christian Democrats, for years the biggest party in the city, with over 40 % two years ago. At the end of the evening the rightwing CDU, with its worst defeat in Berlin since World War Two had reached 23.6 %, just barely edging out the party of the left which received an amazing 22.7%!

The major winner of the evening was the Social Democratic Party (SPD) with 29.9% - a big leap forward. As junior partner in a coalition with the CDU for ten years it had been skidding downwards like an oiled skateboard. But last June, after a miserable financial scandal caught the top CDU leaders with their pants down - and cost the already bankrupt city billions of dollars - the SPD quit its long partnership with Big Brother CDU and formed a shaky new coalition with the small Green party - and the temporary support (but not inclusion) of the PDS - until today's special new elections could be held. As mayor and leading candidate the SPD chose a youngish man, Klaus Wowereit (pronounced Voh-ver-ite), who had a pleasant smile, a friendly manner and was the first major candidate in recent history to be openly gay (when he made this public he added: "und das ist gut so" - "and that's a good thing." The phrase became a popular part of the campaign).

His main, though friendly rival was not really the CDU leader, also a youngish newcomer but with a strange, toothy smile, the charm of an armadillo and an ability to put his foot in his large mouth on every occasion. It was rather Gregor Gysi, the leading candidate of the PDS, a short, erudite and extremely witty man, a favorite on talk shows, and probably the first Jewish candidate to run for major office in Germany (there were top Jewish party leaders in the East German Democratic Republic, but none in leading elected positions).

Gysi and the PDS had one main disadvantage. Other parties tried hard to keep the PDS in its pariah position, repeating over and over that it was the follow-up party of that awful SED which ruled East Germany for 40 years, built the Wall, killed those trying to escape and ran a horrible dictatorship. A vote for the PDS (and even the SPD) would mean brutal Bolshevik rule in Berlin, they warned. This barrage, which reached its height at the 40th anniversary of the building of the wall in August, was conducted assiduously by the very conservative Free Democrats and most of all by the CDU, trying hard to recuperate from its awful sleaze image and with few other issues.

But it didn't work. The Free Democrats did manage finally to get back into the city parliament with a 9.8% vote, but almost all were from disgusted former CDU voters. The CDU results were a total disaster.

There were two main reasons why the PDS survived all the red-baiting so handily (most of its leaders, by the way, had long since disassociated themselves from SED policies). One was certainly the TV popularity of Gregor Gysi. But the other, far more important reason was well outside the local sphere.. Nearly all Germans knew that the PDS was the one and only Bundestag party to oppose the war in Afghanistan. "Oppose terror", one of its posters said, "but keep the peace". For this it was denounced in the national Bundestag, kept out of all-party policy meetings it was entitled to participate in, maltreated by most of the media - but rewarded in the voting booths. A large share of east Berliners and a growing number of West Berliners, though shocked at the events in Manhattan and Washington, are angry, doubtful, worried or even fearful about the idea of warfare, and especially of German participation in it - a goal which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is pursuing with all his strength, seconded by Foreign Minister Josef Fischer, a leading Green.

The Green party, whose base was traditionally anti-war as well as feminist and ecological, is now split between those who are against the war or want at least a humanitarian pause to send in supplies and prevent mass starvation, and those who support Fischer, Schroeder and Bush to the last Cruise Missile. If the Greens oppose the war they lose their coalition status and all government posts and perks. If they support the war, they lose a lot of voters, which is just what is happening, though with 9.1 % (down from 9.9% two years ago) it was not quite as bad as feared - or as in Hamburg's recent elections. But people who are opposed - including young men who fear military service - see the PDS as the one and only opposition to violent retribution rather than thinking over wiser and more successful ways of moving against terrorism and its roots.

In terms of Berlin politics Klaus Wowereit and the SPD now face a dilemma. 78 seats are needed for a majority in the 155-delegate Chamber of Deputies. The SPD only has 49. It must either join with the PDS to form a so-called "red-red" (or "pale red-deep red") coalition with 85 seats, or with the Greens and the conservative Free Democrats (with 15 and 16 seats) to form a shaky coalition with 80 votes, a so-called "traffic-light coalition" (since the FDP color is yellow, the others red and green). Will the SPD look to the right or to the left - which would earn it dirty looks from the war-hungry leadership of the national SPD? No-one knows as yet. Since Berlin is the capital this is far more important than most such local decisions.

The PDS supporters in the big tent debated these questions too. But most of all they rejoiced that their party had broken out of the taboo zone and was a force to be reckoned with. It had won 47 percent of all East Berlin votes (over 50 percent in two boroughs) and defied old prejudices and hatred in West Berlin to gain an unprecedented 6-7% in the western part of the city, a real breakthrough, sought after for years. An old media cliché - that PDS supporters were all overage and gradually dying off - was disproved by one look in and around that big tent. The PDS was not only the party with the largest proportion of women in office and leadership but was gaining more and more youthful supporters, in no small measure thanks to its courageous opposition to a militarist Germany.

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