Oskar Lafontaine, ex-chairman of Germany's Social Democrats, has left the party to support a possible new left-wing alliance to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left government in the upcoming election.
Lafontaine left Schröder's government in 1999
Long the bane of Schröder's political life, Lafontaine has played the leftist gadfly since petulantly quitting as finance minister in 1999. Having flirted with the idea of leaving the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and he clearly felt the time was right after the chancellor decided to bring forward the next general election for this fall.
Lafontaine has consistently attacked Schröder's so-called Agenda 2010, a package of unpopular welfare cuts and labor market reforms dubbed Hartz IV that slashed unemployment benefits.
"I have always said that if my party went into the election with Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV, I couldn't support it anymore," Lafontaine said on German television. "The decision has now been made."
After abandoning the SPD, Lafontaine immediate went about trying to forge a new political home for himself. He has proposed an alliance between the eastern German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and a new western left-wing party calling itself Election Alternative (WASG).
Trailing the conservatives
Already trailing the conservative opposition, a new threat from the left could seriously jeopardize Schröder's re-election chances this autumn as it could siphon off support from disgruntled trade unionists and left-wing hardliners in the SPD. After 39 years as a Social Democrat, the charismatic Lafontaine could possibly draw many people to the banner of any new party.
"Such an alliance would be a clear challenge and one that I don't underestimate," said SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering.
The SPD is still reeling from the crushing defeat in last Sunday’s election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, once a regional stronghold for the Social Democrats. Schröder felt he had no choice but to bring the general election scheduled for autumn 2006 forward by a year after the conservatives won the poll.
Professor Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at the University of Mainz, said a potential left-wing coalition could try to combine Lafontaine's popularity with that of the PDS' former leader Gregor Gysi to build a pan-German far-left party.
"With people like Oskar Lafontaine and perhaps Gregor Gysi as the respective candidates for western and eastern Germany, the party will very likely get past the five percent parliamentary hurdle," Falter told DW-RADIO.
The leadership of the PDS, which rose from the ashes of East Germany's former communist party, is uncertain there is enough time to try to merge the two parties. However, PDS Chairman Lothar Bisky on Wednesday said he still thought a united leftist party would was a good idea. "It would possibly provide a great lift for the left overall," said in an interview with WDR television.
Regardless of how successful the hard left is at combining their election efforts, it could force the SPD to swing away from the political center. Recent attacks by Müntefering on supposedly unbridled capitalist principles could return in campaign rhetoric.
That could placate several high-profile SPD left-wingers, who, for the moment, appear prepared to stay in the party and fight for it to turn away from Schröder's reform course.