The political earthquake once widely predicted for the West German federal elections failed to take place on 25 January 1987. Six months earlier, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the centre–right coalition had barely managed to scrape home in the Lower Saxony elections, just thirty thousand votes ahead of the combined spd and Greens total. But subsequent elections in Bavaria and Hamburg had registered a sharp decline in Social Democrat support, and by the late autumn of last year no one believed any longer that ‘red–green chaos, the destruction of Germany’ (as the ruling parties put it) was on the cards. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the listless election campaign—or at least the ranking and margins of difference—revealed significant shifts in the political configuration of the Federal Republic and provided little satisfaction for the Kohl administration. On the left, debates on the spd programme and arguments about the prospects for a red–green alliance, which had been suppressed during the election race, burst out again minutes after the polling stations had shut and the first computer predictions had flashed on the t.v. screens. For the spd strategy of eliminating the Greens, consistently pursued by the Party’s candidate for chancellor Johannes Rau, had boomeranged with the increased representation of the Greens in the Bundestag. In both parties the various tendencies had taken care to clear the decks for a hard-hitting balance-sheet of the preceding period.

The principal features of the election result may be summarized as follows. First, as Der Spiegel put it, Helmut Kohl was ‘father to a sad victory’: the cdu/csu and fdp coalition lost 2.4 per cent of its 1983 total, finishing with only 53.5 per cent of the vote. Second, within the coalition the Christian Democrat decline was truly dramatic—from 48.8 per cent in 1983 to 44.3 per cent—while the Free Democrats continued their rise from 7 per cent to 9.1 per cent. Third, the erosion of the spd (–1.2 per cent) in favour of the Greens (plus 2.7 per cent) signified a parallel redistribution within the opposition camp. Fourth, the spd’s second successive result below forty per cent stabilized it at the same level as in the early sixties. Rau’s vision of a return to power under its own steam proved to be a mirage that immediately produced talk of a ‘flying change of generations’. Fifth, the Greens were able to clear the five-per-cent hurdle for the second time, establishing themselves in the party system despite the open and declared hostility of the other parties.footnote1

If, at the end of the day, there is an appearance of immobility in West German politics, this is largely because the spd wasted the opportunity for united action to defeat the conservative bloc, preferring instead to concentrate on the illusory goal of ‘rolling back’ its partners in opposition. On election night itself the Greens’ leading candidate in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Antje Vollmer, publicly blamed the outcome on Rau’s determination to win extra votes in this way, rather than set his sights on a combined parliamentary majority. The spd had simply failed to present a convincing alternative government, based on a left–right polarization. The idea of a new round of mobilization for the thirty-five hour week, set for the spring and enthusiastically expected by some trade-union leaders, caused nothing but embarrassed silence during the election campaign.footnote2 Almost the only mass action was waged by the 70,000 steelworkers who, in bitter cold, demonstrated in twenty-five Ruhr towns against closures in their crisis-ridden industry. The fact that, even so, the opposition raised its share of the vote from 43.8 per cent to 45.3 per cent indicates what might have been achieved with different policies—especially as the spd, despite its overall drop, was still able to take some 400,000 votes from the Christian Democrats.footnote3 On election day, however, many potential (or past) spd voters turned out to deny the Christian Democrats an absolute majority in the only way that seemed feasible: by casting their vote for the fdp.

Until January the redistributive shift in regional elections had affected only the relationship within the opposition camp. Now the voters corrected this injustice. The cdu/csu became subject to the same erosion process, since, like the spd, it has tried to project itself as a ‘popular party’ despite the constraints of the sharpening contradictions of the capitalist system, and can no longer easily balance the material interests of its clientele. In the long term this creates very serious problems for the Christian Democrat Union, which cannot depend upon the kind of historically established core of support that the spd has in the shape of the industrial working class and its bond with the trade unions. Any ideological radicalization within West German society thus lays an explosive charge under its electoral potential. Heiner Geissler, the cdu general secretary and one of the few leadership figures with any foresight, clearly perceived this danger when he vehemently warned the Union against encouraging xenophobia.

The explosive charges in the present conservative camp can easily be named. First, the recomposition of the opposition—with a strong force to the left of the spd and the absence of a coherent governmental alternative—has accelerated radicalization at the edges of the conservative bloc itself. Second, the centre–right camp is divided over the fundamental orientation of foreign policy, which has always been decisive for the development of the frg, since more than any other country it is the real boundary in the East–West conflict.footnote4 Third, the state of the economy is forcing the principal party in the ruling bloc, the cdu/csu, to cut deep into the flesh of its chief base, the Catholic workers and farmers. Finally, public opinion in the frg tends to express a new and quite broad consensus on questions that are not unimportant for politics in general—for example, the abandonment of nuclear power, withdrawal of the recently installed us missiles, protection of civil rights, retention in full of paragraph 218 of the civil code regulating abortions. On such matters the government runs a permanent risk of finding itself out of tune with key sections of its electorate. The 800,000 voters who, tactically or otherwise, passed directly from the cdu/csu to the fdp were motivated above all by a desire to prevent a further rightward move by the government. At the other extreme, however, the Christian Democrats suffered a haemorrhage of 150,000 votes to right-wing groups which, by means of the so-called ‘steel-helmet faction’, extend their influence into the Union itself.footnote5

On the left, the elections showed that the cohesion of the spd is no longer merely crumbling and fraying at the edges, but that the bonds holding together the traditional Social Democrat base have snapped at a number of points, especially in the big cities where the tertiary sector has been expanding and a counter-culture is long established. A balance of strength between the spd and Greens of roughly 2.5:1 is now taking shape in Frankfurt (36.6% to 13.6%), Stuttgart (34.4% to 12.7%) and Munich (30.9% to 13.4%), and the Greens have reached double figures in nearly all the other large cities with the exception of the Ruhr (see below). The established parties, at one on this issue, like to talk of a ‘Kir Royal clientele’, which is supposed to suggest that the Greens have found their core voters solely in the luxuriating milieu of habitués of the good life—yuppies tinged with leftism out of boredom.footnote6 This ignores the fact that in many cities an alternative network has developed—from political campaigns to cafés and pubs—which sees itself as left-wing and which has extended its influence deep into the Social Democrat heartlands. The spd’s election losses of the eighties were indeed preceded by the surrender of ideological leadership in the dynamic sections of the Left.

A further point should be remembered, particularly when reference is made to West Germany in the context of the ‘crisis of the European Left’. The balance of forces between the German Left and the centre and right parties today corresponds almost exactly to that which prevailed at the high-tide of reform expectations in the spd under a still fresh Willy Brandt, after the social upheaval of 1968 and well before the fdp crossed over to alliance with the Christian Democrats. In 1972 the spd scored 45.8 per cent of the vote (against the spd–Green total of 45.3 per cent in 1987) and the bourgeois parties achieved 53.3 per cent (now 53.4 per cent). This allows a greater degree of optimism than in, say, Britain or France, and underlines how important the potential for political openings in the frg is for Western Europe as a whole. This situation would be quite inconceivable without the Greens—without the consolidation into a party of the social movements of the late seventies and early eighties and the radical break in the post-war consensus of West German parliamentary democracy.footnote7