Popular in the East - obsolete in the West? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.06.2012
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Germany

Popular in the East - obsolete in the West?

Germany's socialist Left party won about 12 percent of the vote at the last national election in 2009. Since then, the party has seen a series of setbacks, and there are a number of reasons.

Just last month, the Left party - formed in 2007 by former East German ex-communists and disillusioned Social Democrats (SPD) from the West - was bowled out of the state parliaments in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein. The latest opinion polls see the socialists hovering just above the five percent hurdle needed to win seats in parliament. Three years ago, the party stormed into the national parliament - the Bundestag - with nearly 12 percent of the vote.

This is the storyline facing the party as it meets for its national party conference this weekend in Göttingen. At the moment, the party is the second largest opposition group in the Bundestag - ahead of the Greens, but behind the Social Democrats. However, that may change at the next general election in 2013.

Lafontaine makes the party attractive in the West

The party became attractive to voters in the West in the last several years due to the popularity of Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democrat and finance minister under ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He became an identification figure for disillusioned, left-wing Social Democrats and labor union members in the West. Unions formed the Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG), which later joined forces with the eastern German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor, after unification, to former communist East Germany's Socialist Unity Party. Together, they renamed themselves the Left party.

Former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine speaking at a WASG meeting

Lafontaine was a barn-storming orator who could unite the party's divergent wings

The PDS quickly became the party to represent eastern German interests through, and after, the reunification process. And it was no taboo to form coalitions with the SPD in the six eastern German states, including Berlin. Currently, there is a Left-SPD alliance in Brandenburg.

The Left party enjoys strong ties with the electorate at the municipal level in the East. Hundreds of mayors, town councilors and county legislators are a clear illustration of the broad support the party boasts in the East.

Lafontaine pulled the two geographic sides of the party together with his populist approach and sharp wit, despite the group's communist roots. Lafontaine's leadership turned the party into a serious election alternative for left-wing SPD and Green sympathizers.

Mini-party in North Rhine-Westphalia

After flying high in its heady early days, the westward expansion of the party appears now to have reached its limit. For a while, it was represented in seven of the ten western state parliaments. It is now still in five. Particularly painful was the shipwreck in North Rhine-Westphalia at the hands of the up-and-coming Pirate Party. The spoils were a meager 2.5 percent at the ballot box in May, compared to about 12 percent for the Internet-age Pirates. The Left party in western Germany is looking more and more like a splinter party on the political fringe - and therefore obsolete.

Former Left party co-leadera, Gesine Loetzsch and Klaus Ernst in Berlin

The leadership tandem patched over internal divisions

The demise is closely interwoven with the personal fate of Oskar Lafontaine. When he stepped down as party leader and head of the parliamentary group in 2010 due to illness relating to cancer, long suppressed differences within the party resurfaced for all to see. The political demarcation line runs roughly between East and West, between supporters of government participation and responsibility and those who see the party as a sort of anti-government opposition. The result of this philosophical divide was a double party leadership with Klaus Ernst from the West and Gesine Lötsch from the East, who has since resigned for personal reasons.

Strict anti-capitalist party platform

The two leaders were never able to pacify the trench warfare. The party's anti-capitalist platform from 2011 was clearly the work of Oskar Lafontaine and many hoped he would return to unite the party for the 2013 national election. But that is not the case.

Instead, a former party mamager and deputy parliamentary leader, Dietmar Bartsch, is squaring off against a tandem of Katja Kipping and Katharina Schwabedissen. In total, at this weekend's conference, 12 candidates are running for the two posts in the shared party leadership, one of which must be a woman.

Deputy parliamentary leader, Sahra Wagenknecht

Wagenknecht is the leader of the party's communist wing

Fundamentalists for Wagenknecht

The Lafontaine camp is hoping that Sahra Wagenknecht will throw her hat in the ring. The leader of the party's far-left communist platform is Lafontaine's partner. Wagenknecht has said she wants a leadership compromise somewhere "beyond the current lines of conflict." If the party cannot come together "we cannot expect the support of the voters," she said.

Whether or not this assessment is accurate is questionable. Despite all of the quarreling, the party still gets double-digit results in the East - sometimes more than 20 percent. In the West, however, the party's rise may really have hinged on the person of Oskar Lafontaine: A kind of rhetorical thunderstorm without lasting changes for the political climate in Germany.

Author: Marcel Fürstenau /gb
Editor: Greg Wiser

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