When delegates from Germany's two biggest far-left parties overwhelmingly backed a formal merger on Sunday, it was a penultimate step toward establishing "DieLinke" (The Left) as the country's fourth-largest political party.
Observers say the party poses a credible threat to the Social Democratic Party, the traditional home of Germany's left wing. The SPD is currently part of the uneasy "grand coalition" government that rules together with Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union bloc.
On Sunday, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), a successor to the communist party of East Germany, and the Labor and Social Justice Party (WASG), a western splinter group led by former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine, officially approved the merger. The new party, DieLinke. (period included) will be formally called into life at a conference in June.
Heavy losses at the SPD
The PDS and WASG first campaigned under one banner in the snap national elections in 2005, where they got a respectable 8.7 percent of the vote. That result landed them the fourth slot on the national political scene.
Now, political watchers are warning that the the new party poses an additional threat to the established SPD, which has already seen its membership drop by over 40 percent since it gained national power under Gerhard Schröder, in 1998. The new party is now serving as a catch-all for those who feel the SPD has moved too far to the center, observers say.
The von der Leyen problem
One big problem for the SPD: It lost support from its traditional trade-union voter base after it took measures to reform the ailing social-welfare state. Meanwhile, the right, traditionally conservative on social issues, seems to have recently discovered the glories of progressive social policy, particulary around women's and family issues.
"The most popular politician these days is (CDU) Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who advocates all-day schools and a woman's right to work," said Arnold Schölzel, editor-in-chief of the far-left newspaper Junge Welt. "Meanwhile the SPD came up with the idea of pushing back retirement to 67, essentially shortening retirement. This has left Lafontaine a wide-open field."
Part of the SPD's problem is simply that it moved from having the freedom of being an opposition party to actually governing the country, said Uwe Andersen, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bochum.
"As a party in government, the SPD is responsible for policy measures that are not always liked by the public," Andersen said. "It's especially interesting that the (new left) is pitching this anti-war movement, because even the Green Party, when they were in government with the SPD, sent German troops abroad."
He said the new left-wing party could benefit from the difficult position the SPD finds itself in, trying to strike a balance between holding on to disgruntled left-wing voters, while not losing the middle, where elections are generally decided.
SPD: What problem?
The SPD response has been to play down the affair and deny the new party poses any real threat.
"I think it is absurd to believe The Left will get political momentum out of this new fusion," SPD steering committee member Andrea Nahles told Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
And a member of the SPD executive committee, Niels Annen, likewise told reporters he didn't expect to lose members to the far left -- although he did caution trade unions not to let the workers' movement become "fragmented."
SPD spokesmen also took care to stress that the party continues to represent the interests of workers -- most recently, in a public push to create a minimum wage.
Yet some critics say this response is not enough.
Local elections as indicator
"The SPD's only chance is to leave the government and go look at its ideas again," said Junge Welt's Schölzel. "It is inevitable that they will have to leave the coalition before the next regular election." German voters will go to the polls in the general election in 2009.
Schölzel and others agree that upcoming parliamentary elections in some German states will be a good indicator of the relative weakness, or strength, of the SPD and The Left.
Meanwhile, political scientist Andersen said he sees the advent of a fourth major political party as heralding a wider change in national politics, almost a Balkanization of the German political landscape, which used to be dominated by the two big parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD.
"But now there is a tendency where a bigger part of the electorate is ready to vote for smaller parties -- even extremist parties," he said. "It makes it more difficult to form a government."