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Test lab for Berlin

Volker Wagener / dbDecember 5, 2014

Germany's first state premier from a party with Communist roots took office on Friday. The Left party's leadership of a coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens is a political experiment, says DW's Volker Wagener.

Bodo Ramelow
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jens-Ulrich Koch

So now he's the premier. It was a narrow win, but Bodo Ramelow made it - he has passed his first test.

Even before he was sworn in, he failed the "Gauck test:" Germany's President, the eternal meddler, doesn't mince words when it comes to his fundamental aversion to the Left party.

"Too close to SED thinking, not trustworthy enough" - was how Gauck described the Left party after a state election in Thuringia, referring to the Socialist Unity Party, which ruled East Germany.

Many Germans feel the same way.

Nice guys with a past

A few weeks ago, the debate about forming an alliance with the Left party brought tears of angry indignation to the eyes of a few Social Democrats in Thuringia.

Many Social Democrats in eastern Germany are in despair over the ease with which the party with the SED legacy sheds its past without further ado to become a regular ruling party.

Many in western Germany are just as indignant, in particular in the conservative camp. Now, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former communists - who only grudgingly admitted that East Germany was an unjust state - are again seated in the front political row. Strategic thinkers to the left of the conservative Christian Democrats have reason to rejoice. The Social Democrats - once a major party that today represents a much smaller percentage of the population - are secretly overjoyed, too.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall, the Left is still a force to be reckoned with in the eastern German states. It is needed for alliances; in towns and villages, it is regarded as the party that takes charge. The all too human tendency to hold on to what is familiar also plays a role when voters continue to accept the heirs to East Germany's former communist rulers. In eastern Germany, the Left is a political factor: the change in political systems may have curtailed it, but it hasn't been marginalized.

Volker Wagener
DW' editor Volker WagenerImage: DW

Ramelow from the West

On the contrary: Here comes the new Premier Bodo Ramelow. He attracts interest because he doesn't fit the criteria of the eastern German Leftist sociogram at all.

That is, he doesn't share their background.

He's from the west, a practicing Protestant, and conservative in his economic policies. He breaks almost all the taboos, belies every cliché about the Left - but he has a soft spot for the people of eastern Germans. For years, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution kept tabs on him, the rebel who knew how to knot a tie at the age of 14.

In the year of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, conservative politicians in particular are disgusted that the children of East Germany's 1989 peaceful revolutionaries are now to be ruled, of all people, by the heirs of the SED. They wonder how much of the SED is left in Ramelow's Left party.

Take lawmaker Frank Kuschel, an informer for East Germany's Stasi secret police, said to "charge people unconditionally." Or take Ina Leukefeld, a police officer who informed the Stasi about fellow countrymen wishing to leave East Germany. She and others are the Left party's legacy, and 25 years after the collapse of the East German regime, they still stir up bad blood.

That's the stage the Social Democrats enter as junior partner in the Thuringia coalition. It's amusing to say the least - after all, Social Democrats back in East Germany's saw themselves as dissidents opposed to the ruling SED. It's a major bump in the road for many, but the Social Democrats are intent on governing under Ramelow.

It's certainly a risk. But it's also a chance.

In the smaller confines of a state, it's easier to experiment. Wasn't the Social Democratic coalition with the Greens in the state of Hesse in the 1980s a trial run for a later national coalition? The Social Democrats haven't come out and said as much, but Thuringia is in fact a test lab for Berlin.

The Left's government premiere in Thuringia gives the Social Democrats strategic options beyond the grand coalition with the conservatives.

If they want a Social Democratic chancellor in 2017, an alliance with the Greens and the Left party seems the way to go. But it's risky. Not all Social Democrats back this option, while the Greens have learned to get along with the conservatives. The provincial political drama "A whiff of East Germany in Thuringia" isn't just a test for the Left, but for the Social Democrats as well.