Thursday, 27 November 2008

Hessians and Mercenaries in German Politics

Political Affairs Magazine

BERLIN – In George Washington’s day, “Hessians” was a synonym for mercenaries – German soldiers bought and sold by King George III to defeat the American Revolution. In today’s West German state of Hesse, where those soldiers came from, the word “mercenaries” is currently being applied to just four people, not foot soldiers but delegates to the state legislature. Were they bought and sold? By whom? The question is still open. What is known is that they betrayed their party, the Social Democrats, stymieing hopes to oust the local tyrant, minister president Ronald Koch. Their betrayal has consequences – not only for the six million people of Hesse. It is of symbolic importance.

Last January, after nine years in office, Koch, 50, campaigned for a third term for his so-called Christian Democrats (CDU) and their equally far-right ally, the Free Democrats. Correctly fearing that more and more Hessians were sick of them, he stooped to the nastiest of attacks against “young immigrant thugs” and “criminal foreigners.” His posters played on the foreign-sounding names of the leaders of both Social Democrats and Greens, and on the attempts of the new party, the Left, to get into the legislature: “Stop Ypsilanti, El-Wazir and the Communists”. His Free Democrat allies resorted to the worn old “Freedom or Socialism” slogan.

This time it didn’t work. Koch’s CDU got only 36.8 percent of the vote, a loss of more than 12 percentage points and its worst defeat in years. Andrea Ypsilanti, a dynamic, competent, pleasant-looking new figure on the political scene, whose program was more socially-conscious than that of her fellow Social Democrats on the national level, made big gains and achieved 36.7 percent. This was sensational – but still one tenth of a point behind Koch.

That is where the new party, The Left, came in. In its very first try, it had won 5.1 percent, slipping over the 5 percent hurdle and getting 6 seats in the state legislature. Unhappily, in response to heavy-handed pressure from the national Social Democratic party during the election campaign, Ypsilanti had promised not to form any coalition with The Left, the pariah of almost all German media. But the addition of a fifth party meant that no combination of only two parties could attain a majority. A third one was required. None seemed available.

Therefore Andrea Ypsilanti, twisting her promise a tiny bit, worked out a deal whereby the SPD and the Greens would form a minority government which could stay in power as long as the six deputies from the Left agreed not to join it but to support it with their votes. The media raged, but The Left, after a referendum of its members in Hesse, agreed to this, with reservations on certain issues (like refusing to back further extension of the immense international airport at Frankfurt, Hesse’s largest city). The Greens also agreed and the deal seemed shaky but certain - until one Social Democratic deputy suddenly found that she had abhorred the East German Democratic Republic far too strongly to support any agreement with the Left, which had most of its roots there, although almost none of the Left deputies came from East Germany. Thus, at the last moment the deal floundered.

For months the state remained in limbo, with Koch staying in office on a care-taker basis, but without having the votes to really rule. The three parties opposing him, Social Democrats, Greens and the Left, combining their wafer-thin majority, forced through some decisions, most importantly the reversal of a law requiring students at state-owned colleges to pay tuition charges.

Meanwhile Andrea Ypsilanti kept trying to work out an agreement to “topple the tyrant.” Again ignoring her earlier promise to reject support from the Left, she visited and checked out county organizations of her party all over Hesse and found them all willing to stay together and make another bid. Even with that one delegate sticking to her refusal, they could just manage to oust Koch after all by a single vote. The Greens and The Left were still willing and the vote was scheduled for November 4th. That was Election Day in the USA; it was probably felt that this might keep the result out of the day’s main headlines, which would meet it with cold hatred or violent fury.

Instead, the media triumphed! Just one day before the vote the fan got hit in Hesse! At a hasty press conference not just one but four Social Democrats announced that they had suddenly discovered their anti-Communist consciences. Despite solemn promises to Ypsilanti, without even consulting her, in fact, they refused to support any coalition dependent on votes from that terrible Left. This “Gang of Four,” as they were immediately called, were all right-wing party members; their leader had been passed over in his wishes for a top ministerial position with Ypsilanti. After brief statements to the delighted press they rushed off to a secret location, where they waited until the worst of the anger and disappointment had eased. There were demands that they give up their seats in the legislature, since they had defied the wishes of nearly all Social Democrats. Of course they refused. They were expelled from the Social Democratic caucus and will hardly be nominated again. But they will probably find no lack in job offers.

Why did they opt out at the very last moment? Several theories emerged. What occurs first is that Koch and his team bribed them. A variant: various economic interests in Hesse bribed them – most plausibly those eager to enlarge the Frankfurt airport, regardless of opposition from environmentalists, the surrounding countryside, the Greens and the Left. Another possibility is certainly that the top leadership of the Social Democrats, still engaged in a coalition with Christian Democrats on the national level, feared any leftward trend in their party, and above all acceptance or cooperation with the growing Left party in any form, especially with national elections due next September. The national chairman of the Social Democrats, Kurt Beck, was almost literally chased from office ten weeks ago because he had wavered in this absolute taboo and even mildly supported Ypsilanti, telling her she could act as she and the party in Hesse saw fit. His replacement, Franz Muentefering, looks principally rightward and rules the party with an iron hand, despite catastrophic losses in popular support in recent years. Men like Muentefering, and his local supporters in Hesse, often with ties to business circles, prefer almost anything to a leftward trend. The leader of the “Gang of Four”, though obviously motivated in part by personal jealousy of Ypsilanti and ambitions of moving upward himself, has openly stated his preference for a coalition with Koch and his Christian Democrats to any kind of agreement with the Left.

On November 19th the Hessian parliament finally ended the month-long stalemate, officially dissolved itself and voted to hold new elections on January 18th. Andrea Ypsilanti remains party leader but gave up her attempt to become the only female minister president of a German state (the second in history). The man chosen to replace her as candidate for that job is a virtually unknown man with a less than charismatic face and name, Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel. He faces a tough uphill battle. Many voters are tired of the internal quarrels among Social Democrats and the media now predict a victory for Koch and his allies. Of course, they also predict that the Left will no longer take the five percent hurdle. Perhaps this is all their wishful thinking. But an election campaign during the Christmas season is always a difficult thing.

Once again, as so often in history, the powers-that-be, including those running the Social Democratic Party, prefer turning to the right to turning to the left, no matter what the consequences. Anyone challenging this often fateful tradition faces the constant danger of being thrown to the wolves – or at least thrown out of leadership.

And meanwhile, rumbling menacingly in the background, the giant automobile manufacturer Opel, a subsidiary of General Motors, is threatened with bankruptcy. While the legislators in Wiesbaden, the capital of Hesse, worry about seats in the next legislature, thousands if not tens of thousands of working people in Opel’s huge central offices and main plant in Russelsheim, a bare 15 miles away, or in many supplier plants, are worrying about their jobs, their homes and families. More years with Koch, more likely again, would probably be the worst possible solution. What would be the best one?

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