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Germany's New Left Threatens Schröder

DW staff (dre)
June 14, 2005

With two former media darlings looking to lead them into battle, Germany's newly allied leftists are hoping for major gains in the election. But how much can they really bite off?

Dream team? Gysi (l.) and Lafontaine might lead the leftImage: AP

In the run-up to this fall's expected federal elections, Germany's political left will rail against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's labor and welfare reform packages in their bid to storm back into the Bundestag. But at the moment, they're pre-occupied with much smaller things, namely, what to call themselves.

The founding of the Election Alternative for Social Justice (WASG) as a reaction to Schröder's reform packages, has been spearheaded by former finance minister and political star Oskar Lafontaine. Schröder's most prominent critic from the left is looking to form a political alliance with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to East Germany's communist party which remains the third-strongest voice in the country's eastern states.

Over the weekend, the PDS, eager to get another shot at entering the Bundestag after failing to get enough votes in 2002, floated the "Democratic Left - PDS" as a possible name for the alliance. But many leftist stalwarts in the western part of the country are skeptical of the PDS, which is still viewed as an eastern German party.

"We know that the PDS doesn't always sound good," in the West, PDS chief Lothar Bisky acknowledged.

Good chances -- if it takes off

This coming weekend, Bisky, former PDS star and media darling Gregor Gysi and other party officials will meet with Lafontaine in an effort to reach an agreement on the name.

The potential east-west alliance has good chances if Schröder's wish to call federal elections this fall is granted by Germany's president and the Bundestag. A recent poll by public broadcaster ZDF said 18 percent of the population would consider voting for a leftist alliance.

Dissatisfaction with Schröder's labor market reform program, dubbed Hartz IV, has plunged his government into a crisis. Staggering losses suffered by his Social Democrats in state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 22 prompted Schröder to take the unusual tactic of calling general elections, scheduled for 2006, one year early.

Bildergalerie Gerhard Schröder 17
Things aren't going well for SchröderImage: AP

Third-largest party?

Analysts are bleak about his chances against the opposition Christian Democratic Union and the FDP, their likely coalition partners in a new government. Polls show the SPD getting only 35 percent of the vote, with a strong leftist alliance possibly peeling even more percentage points away. A team combining Gysi and Lafontaine has made many on the left salivate at the prospects of leapfrogging the Green Party, currently junior coalition partners in Schröder's government, to become the country's third-biggest party.

But the new left is anything but solid, say observers and party members. The WASG will find its voters by criticizing Schröder's reform course as overly harsh, and contrary to social democratic tradition. The PDS has traditionally won support from disgruntled East Germans who embrace its criticism of capitalism.

"We are unified in the rejection of the government's social policies and … Hartz IV, but that's about it," said Petra Pau, a PDS leader in Berlin.

Whatever the outcome of this weekend's talks, the PDS has already reached one goal: after three years in which they disappeared from the national political stage, people are once again talking about them.

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