[A-List] Germany: the Left Party

Michael Keaney michael011 at fastmail.fm
Tue Jun 19 02:03:13 MDT 2007


SPIEGEL ONLINE - June 18, 2007, 06:08 PM
URL: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,489255,00.html
LETTER FROM BERLIN
Demagogues, Communists, and Germany's New Left-Wing Heavyweight

By Charles Hawley

It was a long time in coming, but finally on Saturday, Germany saw the
birth of the new Left Party. Many see it as a collection of demagogues
and former communists, but the political establishment is worried it
could draw voters away from mainstream parties.

It's often just a single day that defines a political legacy. For former
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it was the Oct. 3, 1990 reunification of
Germany. Ex-US President Richard Nixon's place in history was on full
display on the day he resigned in the wake of Watergate. And Ronald
Reagan's legacy rests heavily on his June 12, 1987 speech in Berlin in
which he demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

The defining day for former German leader Gerhard Schröder may very well
have been Saturday, June 16, 2007. Finally this weekend, after years of
planning and seemingly endless negotiations, the left side of Germany's
political spectrum just got a whole lot more crowded. The new party,
fittingly, is called the Left Party. And it provides a home for former
communists from Eastern Germany, idealistic socialists from Western
Germany -- and a whole slew of former Social Democratic Party (SPD)
members disgusted by their party's lurch to the center.

"I attack the policies of the SPD," new Left Party co-chair Oskar
Lafontaine -- and former party chairman for the SPD -- told SPIEGEL
ONLINE in an interview last week. "The policies of the SPD are as
follows: salary cuts, pension cuts, dismantling the welfare state and
participation in wars that violate human rights laws. That is contrary
to my political convictions."

Political polls indicate that Lafontaine is not alone. Saturday's
official wedding will likely give the party -- a fusion between former
East German communists from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and
Western German socialists from WASG -- a boost from the single digits it
has been polling since the 2005 election. The two parties ran a joint
campaign in that vote, but the promised union was continually delayed as
political differences were ironed out.

A Threat to Social Democrats?

Now that the two have become one, it appears that more Germans might be
paying attention. A new survey by Forsa indicates that 9 percent of SPD
members are considering a switch to the Left Party and a full 23 percent
of SPD voters could imagine voting for the Left Party in Germany's next
parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for 2009.

In short, Germany's Social Democrats are in trouble. And judging by
weekend comments by SPD leaders, the party is also frightened. The
"so-called Left Party," floor leader Peter Struck vented in an interview
published in the newspaper Bild on Monday, "is a club of social
romantics who promise people the world without having any idea how to
pay for it. It's hot air with absolutely no substance."

SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil threw his hat into the ring as well,
accusing the Left Party of denying reality and called them
"anti-enlightened left-wing populists." And Germany's Environment
Minister Sigmar Gabriel, likewise of the SPD, told SPIEGEL that
"Lafontaine is a chameleon -- someone who has changed his political
positions often in his life... We shouldn't be afraid of him. But we
should stop demonizing him. He is smaller than we sometimes make him out
to be."

One of the reasons for the vehemence with which the SPD goes after
Lafontaine, of course, is that he used to be one of the party's
darlings. In 1990, he was the SPD's candidate for chancellor, losing out
to Helmut Kohl in the wake of reunification. In 1995, he became SPD
chairman and three years later was appointed finance minister in
Schröder's first government. But in 1999, Lafontaine abruptly resigned
from all political and party offices and since then has devoted his
career to being a populist thorn in the SPD's side -- and a vocal critic
of former friend Schröder.

But it was Schröder himself who saved Germany's radical left wing from
historical oblivion. Long the political home of disgruntled
ex-communists from former East Germany, the far left enjoyed a
resurgence as Schröder began steering the SPD toward the political
center. Cuts in unemployment benefits, lower pensions and a general
slimming down of the welfare state drove many SPD members to exit stage
left.

The new Left Party now sees itself as representing Germany's workers and
union members -- the very group that once formed the leftist core of SPD
voters.

'Terrorist Acts in Afghanistan'?

Lafontaine and Co. are demanding a repeal of the new retirement age of
67, a reversal of Schröder's reform package known as Hartz IV (which
substantially reduced benefit payments to the long-term unemployed) and
a cut in working hours. Furthermore, the party has established itself as
a champion of deeply rooted German pacifism. The Left Party would like
to see Germany pull out of Afghanistan immediately and has even accused
German soldiers of taking part in "terrorist acts" in the country.

Reactions to the creation of the Left Party have been just as fierce
outside of the SPD. Guido Westerwelle, chief of the liberal Free
Democratic Party, called the Left Party the reincarnation of the "musty
corpse" of socialism over the weekend. And conservative heavy hitter
Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria said that Lafontaine is a "dangerous
demagogue," and warned that he is trying to split the SPD.

Most of all, though, Germany's political elite are concerned that the
Left Party may not be completely committed to democracy. Fully 40,000 of
the Left Party's 72,000 members were previously members of East
Germany's Communist Party, the SED. The party leadership has likewise
praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his efforts to
renationalize finance and energy companies, despite his recent
crackdowns on freedom of the press. There have been calls for German
authorities to keep the party under observation, much like its
predecessor, the PDS, was watched.

It's hard to tell what the Left Party might mean for the long-term
health of the left side of Germany's political spectrum. Opinion polls
show that -- as in the 2005 elections -- more Germans support parties to
the left of the political center than those to the right. But the SPD is
wary of working with the Left Party, and will likely have trouble
winning elections on its own. Opinion polls indicate that the Left Party
could eventually attract up to 24 percent of Germany's electorate -- and
as many as 44 percent of voters living in the states of the former East
Germany.

It could also just be a flash in the pan. If it isn't, though, June 16
could wind up becoming Schröder's lasting political legacy.


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