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German Reunification

The Left Party, Taking East German Politics West

Few other parties in Germany are as divisive -- and no other party has changed its name so often. So what is the Left party? Where did it come from? And what are its policies?

Oskar Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky

The Left party is new, but has a long history

December 1989. The border between East and West Germany has been open for a month. The Berlin Wall has fallen, taking down with it an entire political system. The East German parliament has deleted from the GDR constitution the paragraph that gave the Socialist Unity Party the leading role in deciding the country's politics. Party members debate the party's future at a special party conference.

Two options are presented: the dissolution of the party or a fundamental renewal from within. In the end, the party is not dissolved. Instead it adopts a new program and a new name. Henceforth it will be known as the SED-PDS: Socialist Unity Party- Party of Democratic Socialism. Of the party's 4,000 full-time functionaries, just 200 remain.

Only a few predict a glorious future for the party.

Regional eastern German party?

Demonstrators protest the election of Egon Kranz on Oct. 24, 1989 at Palast der Republik in Berlin

The SED is a thing of the past

Twenty years on, the party which now bears the name the Left party -- die Linke -- is the fourth party in national elections behind the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). In the eastern states the party is actually neck and neck with the CDU and, in some state parliaments, is ahead of the SPD.

Not even the experts saw its success coming.

"Almost from nothing, from being given no chance as a parliamentary party, a party has been put together that is capable of attracting 10 percent of the vote at national elections," said political scientist Tim Spier from Goettingen University. "That is remarkable."

At the time, many observers thought the party renamed the PDS on Feb. 4, 1990, wouldn't be around for very long. The party did get a respectable 11.1 percent of the vote in the eastern states at the first general election after reunification. But nationally, it only got 2.4 percent. Many commentators thought that this eastern German regional party's significance would quickly dwindle as economic and social differences between the East and West disappeared.

Fast-forward development

But the rise of the PDS was uninterrupted and unstoppable. In 1990 the party got just 9.7 percent of the vote in an election in the eastern state of Thuringia. Four years later it rose to 16.6 percent. In 1999 they got 21.3 percent of the vote and in 2006 a solid 26,2 percent.

It is no longer possible to dismiss the party as a regional phenomenon or as a party that merely attracts a protest vote.

Gregor Gysi

Gregor Gysi chaired the SED-PDS until 1993

In 1994, a Social Democrat-Green coalition in Saxony Anhalt became the first to rely on the support of the PDS. The first state government with direct PDS participation (in a coalition with the SPD) came in 1998 in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Since 2001 the German capital has also been ruled by a SPD-PDS coalition. For Spier this is "fast-forward progress."

But participation in government in Berlin is not just been a blessing for the party. In the 2006 election, the party's share of the vote in its eastern stronghold fell by up to 20 percent.

Commentators blamed this on the PDS' lack of political profile. But just at this critical moment, the Party for Work and Social Justice (WASG) arrived on the scene. The WASG -- founded in 2005 as a protest against SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's social and economic reforms -- was an alliance of disaffected SPD members and trade unionists.

The WASG also saw itself as a democratic socialist party. It was only natural then that the two parties should merge. They became the Left party: Die Linke.

A small established party

In Bremen in May 2007, the Left party entered a state parliament in western Germany for the first time. Now the party is also represented in the western states of Lower Saxony and Hessen.

Oskar Lafontaine

Oskar Lafontaine chairs the Left party together with Lothar Bisky

The party has managed to tap into a mood among the population according to Spier's analysis.

The Left party has been able to position itself as a party of social justice better than the traditional party of social welfare, the SPD.

"This will secure their place for the foreseeable future," said Spier.

Few other parties have the power to generate as much emotional and passionate argument as the Left party. The new-old party tends to provoke a knee-jerk anti-communist reflex in the established democratic parties. But these parties are having to come to terms with the fact that the old four party political landscape has become a five party landscape and that this will remain the case for some time.

But what does the Left party want? It has yet to put forward a comprehensive program, and its message is often confusing. The party is apparently in favor of a free market economy -- but is often anti-capitalist. Whether it can steer a clear course remains to be seen.

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