Riding a wave of populism and anti-establishment sentiment, the newly formed Left Party swept into the Bundestag in September. But cracks are beginning to show in party unity. Is their political future endangered?
Still strong -- but for how long?
On Sept. 23, a party cobbled into existence just six months before the elections swept into Germany's parliament as the country's fourth strongest political party. The Left Party's success stunned pundits, many of whom wondered how long the curious mix of former East German communists and former West German unionists would last.
The answer could come soon.
This week, the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG), which makes up 11,800 of the Left Party's 71,000-member roster, is voting on whether to begin the process of officially becoming one with the bigger party.
Under an agreement signed in December, the two groups, which won 8.7 percent of the national vote in September, would fuse into one party by 2007 and not run candidates against each other in state elections.
But some party officials are already reneging on the party line.
"No money-back guarantee"
Saying they are frustrated with the compromises Left Party officials have had to make in governing coalitions with Social Democrats in Berlin and the state of Mecklenburg Western Pomerania, the WASG is planning on pitting candidates against the Left Party in upcoming elections. The moves have unsettled party leadership and called the future of the nascent Left Party into question.
Together, the Left Party and the WASG won 8.7 percent of the vote
"People who voted for the Left Party woke up a half a year later to realize that the Left Party for which they voted is in actuality two parties," wrote Jörg Schneider, a columnist for the Frankfurter Rundschau. "It's like during a sales event -- you buy one, you get the other free, but without a money-back guarantee."
Unionists who felt former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) was drifting too far to the center sought refuge in the WASG. For the successors of East Germany's communist party, the WASG served as a way to expand beyond their traditional strongholds in the former East. But the marriage was one of convenience not desire, and the WASG has been plagued by infighting from the beginning.
Nothing amiss, says party leadership
In addition to the traditional unionists, the Electoral Alternative includes "some strains that have an extreme left background," said Everhard Holtmann, a political scientist at the University of Halle, especially, he adds, in eastern Germany.
"It's difficult to bring those two parts together," he said.
Top officials have gone out of their way recently to assuage members that the party is not in danger of splitting up. The possibility that WASG candidates could compete against Left Party candidates in Berlin in September will have no effect on the 54-member Bundestag group, said party leader Oskar Lafontaine.
Oskar Lafontaine: nothing to worry about
"That's a fairy tale that the political right has introduced into the discussion," he said in a newspaper interview.
European climate right for new left
Experts, including Holtmann, say it's likely the WASG will vote for the fusion to take place some time in 2007.
The Left Party's continued existence would fit into an overall trend across Europe, where frustration with established parties in times of economic turmoil have given rise to new, niche parties on the Left. In Spain and Portugal, leftist parties have proven particularly successful, as have parties in the former Eastern bloc states.
"Until now, the exception has been Great Britain and Germany," said Holtmann. "But maybe that will change in Germany in the future."
Experts say the Left Party still has discontent on its side. Unemployment has reached 5 million, or around 11.5 percent of the population, and though the consumer climate and growth forecasts are on the upswing, the general frustration with the direction of the country remains a powerful undercurrent in the populace.
Jobs continue to be hard to come by
As long as the grand coalition government of Social Democrats and conservatives led by Chancellor Angela Merkel performs poorly on the job creation front, the success of the Left Party is assured.
"Their success is partially a result of the mood is parts of the country," said Holtmann.
If history is any indication, party leaders Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine will have to work hard to keep their members pacified. New parties to the left of the Social Democrats have been created before, and all have folded under pressure from the mightier SPD.
"The Left Party will probably become a stable element of the German party system, because they enjoy advantages of dimension," said Holtmann.
"But ... the history of the German system reveals that former efforts to found and consolidate competing parties left of the SPD have failed ... It's not quite clear yet, what will happen."