No clear winner is expected in the Hamburg state elections on Sunday, Feb. 24. But the emergence of the Left party as a political force to be seriously reckoned with is already causing turbulence in German politics.
Neither of the two biggest mainstream parties can expect a satisfying result
Incumbent Mayor Ole von Beust of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic (SPD) candidate Michael Naumann, a former federal culture secretary, are squaring off in the race to head up Hamburg's Senate.
But polls show neither of the city-state's biggest parties can count on bringing home the lion's share of the votes on Sunday or even have enough support to form a majority government with their preferred political partners.
Instead, the Left party -- a relative newcomer on the German political scene -- may be on its way to a third-place finish, ahead of the Greens and the free-market liberal FDP.
"Without us it would be deadly boring in [Hamburg's parliament]," said top Left party politician Gregor Gysi at an election rally in the port city on Wednesday.
Hamburg has Germany's most important port
Currently the Left party isn't even represented in Hamburg's parliament, in which the CDU has an absolute majority and the SPD and Greens, called GAL in Hamburg, are in the opposition. But there's no doubt that the Left party will be part of Hamburg's parliament after Sunday.
Recent polls predicted the party would receive up to 9 percent of the vote, putting it shoulder-to-shoulder with the Greens, while the FDP's share hovers around 5 percent, the barrier for entry into the assembly. Forecasts put the CDU at 40 percent and the SPD at 35 percent.
School reform, environmental policy and expanding the harbor are among the top campaign issues, and the Left has managed to garner support with its stress on social justice. That tack seems to have paid off, particularly with the arrest on Monday of Deutsche Post chief Klaus Zumwinkel for alleged tax evasion, which has fired up an angry discussion in Germany about the country's super-rich.
A burgeoning political force
Until recently, the Left -- a far-left grouping which came out of a merger of a Social Democratic splinter group and the successor party to the former East German communists -- had been a political factor only in the country's eastern states.
The Left party is a new political force in Germany
However, it swept into the western state parliaments of Lower Saxony and Hesse on Jan. 27, signaling a breakthrough that is helping it increase its foothold. It's now part of eight of Germany's 16 state parliaments, and on the federal level, it's got over 50 parliamentarians in the 614-member Bundestag.
"The success of the Left have recognizably altered the discussions on policy in the other parties," said Renate Koecher of the Allensbach Institute for public opinion research.
"The efforts of the SPD to re-establish itself with leftist positions ... have brought it little benefit but have rather strengthened the Left," she said.
Beust and Naumann have both rejected even considering entering into coalition talks with the Left. The CDU hopes to be in the position to rule with the FDP, but it may only have the chance to create a coalition with the stronger Greens. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, would definitely prefer to work with the Greens, but forecasts indicate their only chance to be part of the government would be in tandem with their archrivals in the CDU.
Spanners from the left
At least one other thing unites CDU and SPD: both are anxious to avoid the debacle that Hesse experienced after its Jan. 27 state election.
The Left party could become the third-biggest group in Hamburg's parliament
After a dramatically divisive election campaign gave the CDU and SPD almost the same share of the poll, the two parties have been in limbo, unwilling to form a coalition together at the same time as they are unable to create a majority government without making compromises. The Left party's entry into parliament spoiled their election arithmetic.
The CDU and SPD in Hesse have rejected cooperation with the Left. But media reported earlier this week that the state's Social Democrats, under potential premier Andrea Ypsilanti, were starting to consider the option of heading up a minority government along with the Greens and with the explicit backing of the Left party.
The SPD, however, has vehemently denied these reports.
"There will be no agreements of any kind with the Left, not even toleration," said SPD chief Kurt Beck.
The Social Democratic misgivings about the Left party were confirmed as recently as last week, when Christel Wegner, a communist who was elected to the Lower Saxony legislature in January on the Left ticket, defended the Berlin Wall and the discredited East German security service, the Stasi, on national television.
This was too much even for the Left, who promptly threw her out.
Although the atmosphere in Hamburg isn't close to being as polarized as in Hesse, the vote is still unlikely to provide obvious answers, and neither the candidates themselves, nor political analysts are placing bets on any horse.