The success of the Left party in recent state elections has established parties considering unconventional partners. Political expert Gero Neugebauer said he expects Germany to have a five-party system by next year.
The Left party is the fifth wheel in Germany's traditionally symmetrical political scene
DW-WORLD.DE: The political landscape in Germany has been drastically shaken up in the recent state elections in Hamburg, Hesse and Lower Saxony. The Left party is clearly becoming a rising force. What do you attribute its success to?
Gero Neugebauer: There are several reasons for the Left party's success. One is the general social mood in Germany. People are unsettled. They think things aren't being approached fairly. Too few have a part in the economic upswing. And many think -- also in connection with the [ongoing tax evasion scandal] -- that the gap between rich and poor is continually getting wider and society is becoming more and more divided.
The second reason is the protest mind-set that still exists toward the labor and socio-political reforms of the [previous Social Democratic-Green party] government coalition. Due to the reforms, people are finding themselves in a financial situation they consider incompatible with a good standard of living -- a good standard of living doesn't mean luxury but meeting people's needs.
The Left party is not only critical of society but also promises more money for social welfare, which brings in more votes.
The Left party will have to establish itself in next year's elections, said Neugebauer
Are German voters generally shifting to the left?
The general shift has always been there. The Left party says that globalization leads to a different version of capitalism, that the result is exploitation and a greater social burden. The Germans aren't prepared for that, and they're always interested in calling for protection. Because they want to have certainty about their future, they say that the simple solutions we had during the 1970s and '80s must be a possibility again.
Why aren't any of the established parties willing to partner with the Left party, despite their success in recent elections? What are they afraid of?
The established parties aren't adequately prepared for the situation. They are finding that their coalition options have changed. Until now, they had always assumed that one of the large parties would win enough votes so that they only had to get one, smaller party on board in order to form a majority government. This is no longer the case.
In my opinion, the Left party has to survive the next big elections, in 2009, in order to establish itself -- mainly federal but also state elections.
Then we can expect to have a five-party system. The parties will have to take a look at the options again. The Social Democrats, for example, see that it's not possible to win back the voters they've lost since 2000. Some have gone to the Left party; others just stay at home. But it's rational for them to say: okay, if we can't get these voters back, we'll try to cooperate with the party they've gone to.
In Hesse, the Social Democrats (SPD) under Andrea Ypsilanti are finally considering creating a minority coalition with toleration from the Left party. Will the Left party agree to that?
There's a difference between voting for an SPD state premier and supporting her in the work of the government. There was an example in Saxony-Anhalt where a similar situation worked for eight years due to regular agreements between the parliamentary groups.
The situation in Hesse is different. There, the Left party isn't so closed politically, and it's likely that they will immediately approve some laws and proposals in the state parliament. I expect that the Left party's political profiling will lead to crises and conflicts that restrict their ability to act.
We can't assume that support from the Left party will be stable; I think the SPD is smart enough not to have to rely on stable support.
Hamburg Premier von Beust is a flexible politician, said Neugebauer
In Hamburg, the conservative CDU is now considering teaming up with the Greens after losing their overall majority. Can a CDU-Green coalition be successful there?
Yes, why not? The Greens have to try not to suffocate in the CDU's embrace. At the state level, the premier is the strong figure. Ole von Beust is a very flexible politician. He's had a coalition with a right-wing populist party before and now he's looking to the left.
The Greens have to insist on getting the political areas that are substantive for them, where they can push through their own ideas. Those will have to be things that fit with their core competence -- like environment. But they need a second area and it will be something more to do with social welfare.
They have to have clear boundaries with the CDU, otherwise they'll go under.
What's the relationship between state-level politics and national politics?
There is an institutional relationship between the two. The state elections determine the make-up of the parliamentary bodies, which form the government. The government then sends representatives to the Bundesrat, our second chamber.
The second influence they have is on the make-up of the Federal Assembly, which elects the president. If a party loses mandates in a state election, its faction in the Federal Assembly is weakened.
In general, about three-quarters of voters in state elections are concerned with state issues. That means there are different reasons to vote one way or another in state and federal elections.
However, there are some developments in state politics that anticipate developments at the federal level -- like coalition building. In this context, one could say that if a left-wing parliamentary group supports a state government run by the SPD, it could also be a sign for national politics.
Gero Neugebauer is an expert on political parties and systems at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Freie Universität in Berlin.