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Oskar Lafontaine, head of the Left Party
Party leader Oskar Lafontaine helped lead the left to a second place finish in SaarlandImage: AP

Left turn

August 31, 2009

The Left Party, descendants of the former ruling party of communist East Germany, made big gains in Sunday's polls and is poised to enter governments in both eastern and western Germany.


After Sunday night's state elections, the Left party stands a good chance of participating in two state governments. The party made dramatic gains in the western German state of Saarland, where it cracked the 20 percent barrier after drawing only 2.3 percent of the vote in 2004.

In Thuringia in the former East Germany, the party drew over 26 percent of the vote. The party's top candidate Bodo Ramelow could potentially become the state's next premier depending on coalition negotiations. Ramelow would become the party's first-ever premier in its current incarnation.

The party has already been in a coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party in the state of Berlin since 2001.

"This is an important day in the history of the Left," said the party's parliamentary leader, Gregor Gysi. Party leader Dietmar Bartsch went even further.

"Today, we're one of the three biggest [parties]," Bartsch said.

The face of modern socialism

Left Party candidate Bodo Ramelow
Bodo Ramelow could become the Left party's first premier in ThuringiaImage: dpa

Sunday night's performance may show that the party's socialist message resonates well with voters at a time when Germany is yet to emerge from its worst recession since World War II and unemployment continues to rise.

The Left party's platform takes inspiration from communist icons such as Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg; and demands stricter regulation of business and the financial sector, along with guaranteed minimum wages and maximum working hours for laborers.

Campaign posters for the party in Berlin demand "Tax the rich." Indeed, the party wants to raise the top income tax rate to 53 percent on those earning more than 65,000 euros ($93,000) a year.

On foreign policy, the party regularly calls for an end to the German military's participation in the NATO-led stabilization mission in Afghanistan and the dissolution of NATO.

Party's past makes cooperation difficult

Despite the Left's gains, the party is still seen as toxic by potential allies and foes alike.

Parliamentary leader Gregor Gysi
Parliamentary leader Gregor Gysi transformed the party from its communist rootsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Its predecessor, the Socialist Unity Party, ruled East Germany uninterruptedly from the country's founding in 1949 until 1990, when it was voted out of office in East Germany's only free and fair election.

After changing its name to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), it continued to hold seats in state parliaments across the former East Germany once the two Germanies reunited in 1990 but drew almost no voters in the west.

The party reinvented itself in 2007, when it merged with a small western German leftist party, the WASG, to form the Left Party. The merger with the WASG brought former SPD leader and Saarland premier Oskar Lafontaine in as party leader.

Lafontaine stormed out of the SPD in 2005 and since then has sought to bring other disaffected former SPD members into the Left party. Though the two parties have not ruled out governing together in a state-level coalition, on Sunday night SPD leaders were quick to disavow any cooperation with the Left party ahead of national elections next month.

"On the federal level it's very clear, there will not be cooperation with the Left," said SPD head Franz Muentering after preliminary election results were announced.

A threat to the SPD

The SPD will have to tread lightly in any cooperation it offers with the Left party. Rivals from the market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have sniped that the Left party is not fit to govern due to its communist past.

Last year, a botched attempt by the SPD in Hesse to rely on the informal support of the Left party to topple a CDU government failed after SPD leaders there had initially ruled out any cooperation with the Left.

Immediately after preliminary election results became available Sunday evening, FDP head Guido Westerwelle said the possible left-leaning coalitions that include the SDP and Left party in Thuringia and Saarland were a "warning shot" for Germany.

"Those who don't want socialists and communists to again have a say, must go to the federal elections and choose the middle-class by voting for a strong FDP," Westerwelle said in a statement.

The CDU Sunday night promised not to run a so-called 'red sock' campaign against the SPD for its cooperation with the Left. The CDU has relied on such campaigns in the past against the Left's predecessors to make political inroads in eastern Germany.

Author: Brett Neely/dpa/AP/Reuters/AFP

Editor: Carl Holm

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