With its new plan to acknowledge the importance of capitalism and to embrace the ideals of democracy, the successor party to East Germany's communists, the PDS, is seeking to reverse its waning fortunes.
PDS chairman Lothar Bisky wants to shed his troubled party of its communist roots.
For more than a decade, the Party of Democratic Socialism served as the successor to the former East German communists – a party that struggled to find its way in the post-Cold War mainstream. Now, the party’s new leader is calling for something revolutionary: he wants the PDS to drop from its charter the goal of founding a socialist state and make baby steps toward embracing the capitalism it once so vehemently eschewed.
The proposal is part of a 37-page strategy paper put forward on Monday by the PDS's new leader, Lothar Bisky, who took the helm of the beleaguered party at the end of June amidst a leadership vacuum and dismal showings in polls. Within a year, the PDS had lost its intellectual leader, the charismatic Gregor Gysi as well as chairwoman Gabi Zimmer. For Bisky, the post was abit of deja vu, since he led the party for much of the 1990s. Now he's back, moving quickly to carve out a new niche for the PDS that would turn the diminished party of the east into a true national force.
The new path is the first indication of Bisky's influence on the PDS since he took over nine months after its crushing defeat in national elections. After the election, the party had only two directly elected members of parliament left in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and had lost its official federal party status. In the subsequent months, the party’s influence diminished further as its leaders fell into an intractable ideological dispute between traditionalists and reformers.
Reluctantly embracing capitalism
With his new plan, Bisky, is hoping to find a new niche for the PDS that will place it closer to the mainstream. The language of the proposal is quite radical for a party that would have viewed the label "business friendly" as sacrilege one year ago. "Entrepreneurial action and profit concerns" are "important conditions for innovation and business-economic efficiency," the proposal stated.
But the platforms also call for societal controls to ensure the future of social equity. It demands that the party fully embrace democratic ideals and take lessons from the collapse of communist East Germany and apply them to a new understanding of what socialism should be.
With his platform, Bisky is seeking to embrace the same ideals that most modern political parties hold sacred: separation of powers, a constitutional state and the acceptance of freedom of speech and opinion.
In steering that course, Bisky also takes some of the strongest swipes yet of the party the PDS succeeded, East Germany's communist SED, which his platforms blamed for "painful mistakes, failures of civilization and crimes." The document said that "more than a few members of the SED had helped carry out the structures of oppression."
Still, Bisky said the party was not seeking to align itself too closely with Western Europe’s Social Democrats, including the German chapter led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Instead, he said, the PDS is seeking to redefine itself as a "modern socialist party" that would not abandon its "anti-capitalist" values. And he thinks his chances are good of pushing through the new platforms at a PDS party conference scheduled for October 25-26.
"I’m very certain the plan will be accepted," he told reporters Monday.
A radical departure
But at least one member of the party’s left-wing faction isn’t buying Bisky’s vision. "With this program, the PDS is departing from the idea of socialism as an alternative to a capitalist society," said Sahra Wagenknecht, a leftist member of the party’s governing board, according to the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "The PDS is now becoming a party that has embraced capitalism."
The party’s transformation could also come at a steep cost. Many past PDS victories have come through its ability to attract disenfranchised voters including communists and Marxists. By moving further to the center, the PDS would face the difficult task of gaining ground from the Greens, who hold the junior partnership in the federal government and swept up 8.6 percent of the votes during the last election.
Bisky could still be confronted with leadership defections from the party that would force him to water down his plan, making it less attractive to reform-minded socialists and more mainstream voters.
In the run-up to October's vote, Bisky must also stamp out criticism that the PDS is ill-suited for politics at the national stage. To that end, the proposal states that, in the future, the party would be ready to shoulder its responsibilities in both parliament and the federal government and in the longterm to assist in a ruling center-left coalition.