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Germany

SPD Controversially Looks to the Left in German State

Social Democrats in a western German state look set to launch a second attempt to win power with the help of a far-left party, further fueling divisions within the SPD. Its popularity has slumped in recent months.

Kurt Beck, chairman of the German Social Democratic Party SPD, right, smiles while the SPD top candidate of the state elections in Hesse, Andrea Ypsilanti, left, waves

In happier times, before Ypsilanti's first approach to the Left

After a meeting with top SPD members in the state of Hesse, regional party leader Andrea Ypsilanti signalled she would try to convince her party to cooperate with the Left to oust conservative premier Roland Koch.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) on Thursday, Aug. 15, responded by warning Ypsilanti against relying on the Left party.

Mistrust of Left leader

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel

Sigmar Gabriel has warned against cooperation

Many in the SPD are deeply suspicious of the Left -- which is made up of ex-communists and disillusioned SPD supporters -- and feel betrayed by its populist leader Oskar Lafontaine, a former chairman of the SPD and finance minister.

"I would strongly advise against playing into the hands of Lafontaine," Gabriel told the German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung. He added that the Left party leader was only trying to destabilize the SPD.

In Hesse, the tacit support of the Left for a SPD and Green Party coalition could bring down the CDU's minority administration.

"We are facing the challenge of bringing about political change," Ypsilanti told reporters after executive meeting.

"We have looked at our options and want an open discussion in the party on what to do....We will have to decide how to behave towards the Left," she said.

Final decision in October

Ulrich Wilken, chairman of the Left party in Hesse

The Left debuted in Hesse's state parliament this year

The SPD agreed to a timetable for consultations with rank-and-file members across Hesse, culminating in a party conference on Oct. 4 which will ultimately decide the matter. If the party backs Ypsilanti, talks with the Left could then start about possible cooperation.

The move is Ypsilanti's second bid to gain power with the help of the Left party after the first failed in March. That angered many fellow party members as she had previously vowed not to work with the Left. It also damaged SPD leader Kurt Beck, who had signalled his assent.

Beck's ratings have slumped in the last few months and German media widely report he will not fight incumbent Angela Merkel for the chancellorship in the September 2009 election. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is being tipped as the most likely alternative.

National repercussions

A view of the SPD party headquarters in Berlin with SPD flag flying

Its been a challenging year for the SPD

Analysts say Ypsilanti's fresh attempt risks damaging the SPD at the national level.

The party's left and right wings are deeply divided over what stance the SPD should adopt towards the Left. This move is expected to reopen the fierce debate.

"She has gambled away her own and the Hesse SPD's credibility -- that is the worst thing for a politician or party," political scientist Peter Loesche told German radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "And the national party is paying the price."

With federal elections just a year away, the Social Democrats' popularity rating has sunk to a historic low of 20 percent, according to a poll conducted by Forsa. It showed them trailing their coalition partners, the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, by 17 percent. Support for the Left party remained stable at 14 percent.

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