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Far-left shakeup could bring fresh wind to German political scene

Germany's Left party has announced plans to fill a sudden leadership vacuum. Observers were left to speculate about the effects of the move on the party - and on the overall health of the country's left wing.

Pep rally at the Left party headquarters, with a sign saying Die Linke, the Left

Is it time for the Left party and SPD to join hands?

The far-left Left party has chosen two relative unknowns - Gesine Loetzsch and Klaus Ernst - to fill the vacuum left by the departure of its colorful, and powerful, co-leader Oskar Lafontaine. Some say the move could make room for new alliances that would push Germany's struggling left wing back into national leadership.

Firebrand socialist Lafontaine stepped down on January 23, citing ill health; the 66-year-old has been fighting prostate cancer since 2009. The Left party's other co-leader, Lothar Bisky, is also retiring.

Change on the horizon?

The charismatic Lafontaine, for decades part of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), crossed over - some would say defected - to the Left party in the 1990s. Since then, resentments between party leaders have prevented any hopes of a coalition. But a left-wing coalition is just what the SPD needs to unseat Angela Merkel's center-right government in the next federal election.

Klaus Ernst, left, and Gesine Lötzsch, right

A new duo will lead the Left party

After the recent shakeup, however, some are saying its time for a change. Last Sunday, eight younger politicians from three opposition parties - the Left, the Social Democrats and the Greens - jointly published a call in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper for the parties to work together.

SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel dismissed suggestions that the departure of Lafontaine might make a leftist alliance possible. Gabriel said the SPD had to rejuvenate itself from within and not turn to outside help.

New generation, new sentiment

Yet Nils Diedrich, a retired political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told Deutsche Welle that now that the polarizing Lafontaine is out of the picture, a long-term alliance across Germany's center-left spectrum is not impossible.

"Younger people are searching for a new cooperation within the left, not only between Social Democrats and the Green Party, but also including the left-wing party," Diederich said.

According to Diederich, voter sentiment has changed in the past half-year, since the Social Democrats' grand coalition with Merkel's conservatives fell apart in last October's federal election.

Sunday's published call by leftist dissenters, with their demands for ecological energy policies and a more just social welfare system, is an indication of the shifting landscape.

"I think it will be possible to have a coalition, because there are tendencies in the Left party to a more realistic and non-fundamentalist policy and this makes [it] possible to compromise about the differences in the programs of the parties," Diederich said.

And speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Rico Gebhardt, the leader of the Left party in Saxony, also said he felt that Lafontaine's resignation opened the way for future cooperation between the Left, the SPD and the Greens.

Growth of the Left party

"Lafontaine was one of the reasons the SPD rejected this, but now we have to see how the Left and the SPD position themselves, and I see room on both sides," he said.

Lafontaine has managed to turn the Left party into a major political force in Germany. Its growth has dealt a particularly hard blow to the SPD, which is currently trailing poorly with only about 23 percent in voter surveys. Meanwhile, under Lafontaine, the Left gained seats in the Bundestag and is represented in 13 of Germany's 16 state parliaments.

Portrait, Oskar Lafontaine

Popular Lafontaine stepped down to focus on other things

Still, Gero Neugebauer, also a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, commented that electing a duo to lead the party showed its inherent weakness. It is a party "at the edge of disarray," he says, and one that is severely fractured along east-west German lines - and now it has a leader to cater to both those constituencies, instead of the single strong leader that it needs.

Party in need of a platform

He also criticized the Left party's inability to create a platform, saying they were supposed to approve one as far back as 2008. "I think they'll be lucky if they finish in 2012," he said.

And he says he believes rapprochement between the Left and the SPD is unlikely anytime soon. Should it get closer to the party once led by "Red Oskar," as Lafontaine is known, the SPD would risk either alienating a portion of its current membership, or it would become a target for right-wing attacks ahead of key regional elections,

As for the newly elected Left duo, he said, "the SPD leadership doesn't have a plan for how to deal with this. Until they know the Left party's positions definitively, they will keep their mouths shut."

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn/Ian Johnson
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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