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Germany

One Year On, Left Party Sets Tough Course

At its first national party convention this weekend, the booming Left re-elected its controversial chairman Oskar Lafontaine and laid down a platform of hefty social and economic reforms.

Oskar Lafontaine (left) and Lothar Bisky stand in front of a sign reading Linke, or Left

The popularity of the Left has forced the other major parties to rethink their strategies

One year after former Social Democrats, led by Lafontaine, formed the Left together with the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the party is enjoying more success than ever. It boasts an estimated 73,500 members Germany-wide and, with 10 to 14 percent of the national vote, is the country's third largest party next to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

"We are being hailed as the most successful new party in decades and they say we are setting the political agenda in Germany," Lafontaine told some 600 supporters at the party's first national convention, over the weekend, in the eastern town of Cottbus.

Dubbed Germany's "secret chancellor" by the media, the 64-year-old former SPD chairman was re-elected head of the Left at the conference, though with 10 percent fewer votes than last year.

Party platform includes drastic reforms

During the convention, the party proposed a 50-billion-euro federal program that foresees the creation of publicly funded jobs and a nationwide minimum wage of 10 euros per hour ($15.77). It also includes a ban on layoffs in profitable firms and higher property, corporate and inheritance taxes to balance the national deficit.

In addition, Lafontaine spoke out against NATO, calling it a US-led military machine that violates human rights around the world. The Left said it strictly rejects "all domestic and foreign military operations" and called for the removal of German troops from Afghanistan.

Referring to recent troubles on global financial markets, the party chief also presented a 12-point plan to counter what he called the "perversity" of market-driven capitalism, which included a ban on hedge funds and stock options.

"We are having a huge influence," said Kathrin Vogler, a delegate from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The 44-year-old had been a member of the SPD for 18 years before joining the Left party. "We raise these issues and Berlin shakes."

Questionable dealings with communism

Quickly becoming an influential political force over the past year, the Left has shifted the balance of party politics, forcing the CDU and the SPD to rethink their traditional coalition formations.

But despite its popularity, the party has regularly been dogged by controversy. Ahead of the Cottbus convention, Left member Sahra Wagenknecht was forced to drop her candidacy for deputy party leader because of her involvement in the Communist Platform, an organization that advocates the overthrow of capitalism and is monitored by Germany's intelligence apparatus.

Last week, newly opened Stasi archives suggested that Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader for the Left, may have been an informer for the East German secret police. He has refuted the accusations.

Oskar Lafontaine (left) and Lothar Bisky

Both the chair, Oskar Lafontaine (left), and co-chair of the Left, Lothar Bisky, were re-elected at the convention

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