Left party chairman Oskar Lafontaine has given up his post as leader of his party's parliamentary group in the Bundestag. The move has huge implications for left-wing politics in Germany.
Lafontaine gave up a major position in the Left party
The Left party shocked Germany's political world on Friday with the announcement that their leader, Oskar Lafontaine, would give up his position as the co-chair of his party's faction in the federal parliament to concentrate on his home state of Saarland, where he also leads the parliamentary group. The party faction in the Bundestag will now be led solely by Gregor Gysi.
The news broke ahead of the Left party's conference in Rheinsberg, where the party is set to choose its leadership and draw up its agenda in the coming legislative period. The move was all the more unexpected as Lafontaine's re-election at the meeting had been considered a formality, and he had previously declared that his chairmanship of Saarland's parliamentary faction was only temporary.
The resignation has consequences both in Saarland, where his party is currently involved in coalition negotiations, and on a federal level, where Lafontaine's presence represented a major block to any future partnership with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Lafontaine was joint leader of the party's parliamentary faction with Gregor Gysi
Lafontaine led the Left party to a triumphant election result in Saarland on August 30, where the leftist party entered parliament for the first time with 21 percent of the vote. Lafontaine, then a Social Democrat, was state premier of Saarland from 1985 and 1998 and remains a popular figure among the electorate there.
The Left party's leadership in Berlin declared that Lafontaine's move had been motivated by the "special responsibility" that he felt towards the state, and that he wanted to show his commitment to a possible ruling coalition involving the Left.
But his return has been greeted coolly by political leaders in Saarland. Green party leader Hubert Ulrich is known to have a poor personal relationship with Lafontaine, and a Green party representative recently told reporters that a return of the controversial leftist leader to his home state would be "more of a threat than a help" to relations.
Ulrich told reporters in the state capital, Saarbruecken, that he did not think Lafontaine's return would affect the Green party's decision.
The Green party, the smallest of the five parliamentary groups, is currently the power-broker in Saarland's complicated coalition negotiations, where the Greens have a choice between a center-left coalition of SPD and the Left and a center-right alliance with the Christian Democrats and the Free Liberals. The Saarland Greens are expected to make a decision on Sunday at a state party conference.
A friend in a crisis?
There is little doubt that Lafontaine's eye is on his party's long-term goal to enter the federal government. If a coalition of the two left-of-center parties and the Greens should come about in Saarland, it would be a first in Germany and would be viewed as a test-case to see whether such a coalition could work on a national level. Such a coalition could potentially have a bearing on the next general election in 2013.
The SPD is in crisis after a crushing defeat
Lafontaine's abrupt move also comes in the middle of a sensitive internal debate in the SPD, which is licking its wounds after a devastating general election defeat last month. The Left party has steadily syphoned off the SPD's traditional voters ever since its inception, under a different name, in 2005.
Lafontaine, who resigned from Gerhard Schroeder's government in 1999 and from the SPD in 2005, was instrumental in creating a mainstream far-left alternative for voters disaffected by the Social Democrats' centrist course. Many in the SPD have never forgiven him for this, and still regard the Left party as a political pariah. Lafontaine's partial retreat from national politics could be viewed as an attempt to open the door to such a partnership.
But the SPD's current crisis has left it with a dilemma - either to follow the Left's more radical course and attempt to retrieve some of its voters, or to maintain a centrist line of middle class values which the governing CDU and Angela Merkel currently have a firm grip on.
Author: Ben Knight/dpa/AP
Editor: Nancy Isenson