A former communist as president? While not a problem in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, it was unimaginable in Germany. But the successor party to the SED is well established in Germany.
Aleksander Kwasniewski, Ion Iliescu and Hans Modrow have one thing in common. All three politicians were members of the Communist nomenclature in their respective countries. But unlike the Pole and the Romanian, following the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the German soon disappeared.
In 1995, Kwaśniewski, who had formerly served as Minister for Youth Affairs, was elected as Polish president and even managed to beat off opposition from the legendary civil rights activist, Lech Walesa. Iliescu, a former Secretary of the Romanian Central Committee, succeeded dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was shot in December 1989. Five months later, he won the presidential elections.
Modrow could never have dreamed of a such a career. Although he did briefly advance to the ranks of Prime Minister of East Germany shortly before the country collapsed, in the reunified Germany, all he had besides a parliamentary mandate was the title of "Honorary Chairman" of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the name adopted by the former Socialist Unity Party (SED) that had ruled East Germany.
Given the SED’s association with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the many deaths along the border between the two Germanys, its fate appeared to be sealed.
Gregor Gysi at the helm
Yet for all their dark past, the former communists did manage to carve a place for themselves in united Germany. Its members were not considered for high-ranking state or government office at a national level, but the PDS soon established itself in the eastern states, and proved a strong coalition partner for the Social Democrats (SPD) in the 1990s. Predictions that the post-communist party would eventually disappear proved wrong.
Gregor Gysi was a key figure in the survival and growth of the SED successor party from the outset. As the first leader of the well-financed PDS, the East Berlin lawyer steered his party through the turbulent months after the fall of the Wall. And he has continued to play a pivotal role, both in the foreground and the background, ever since.
Highly intelligent, quick-witted and in possession of rhetorical skill, Gysi is the antithesis of the archetypal dowdy East German functionary. His charisma helped the PDS into the state government in Berlin, where for a short while, he was deputy to Social Democrat mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Involuntary helper: Chancellor Schröder
Its state-level coalition with the SPD in Berlin likely gave the PDS its most important push to modernization, although that did not equal a breakthrough in western Germany. What helped there, albeit unwittingly, was former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose radical labor and economic reforms pushed many disillusioned left-wing SPD followers into the waiting arms of Gysi’s Party of Democratic Socialism.
Schröders long-standing companion, former SPD chairman and ex-minister Oskar Lafontaine, then did his bit to establish the PDS in the western states. He became the face of Alternative Labour and Social Justice (WASG) that emerged in 2005. Two years later, the PDS and WASG joined forces to create the Left party, and pose a challenge for the SPD.
The party has largely achieved its aim of having a pan-German presence. Left party politicians are well established in major cities and urban areas such as the Ruhr region. It is only in the particularly affluent and conservative south and south-west that the SED successors struggle for a firm foothold.
They celebrated their biggest regional political success in 2014 with a victory in the parliamentary elections in Thuringia. Since then, the eastern German state has been run by minister president Bodo Ramelow – himself from a western state.
The fact that his party still accommodates members of parliament with Stasi backgrounds proves that although a couple of shadows from the past are long enough to reach into the present, they are now significant enough to cast the Left Party in a bad light.
Red socks backfired
The red socks campaign that was particularly popular in conservative Catholic circles did more to help than hinder the former communists. Its attempt to discredit left-wingers across the board was too obvious. Ultimately many members of parliament came from elsewhere in East Germany’s tattered political landscape. As one-time members of so-called bloc parties, they were just less obvious than those from the SED. But they too were supporters of the state.
Now, 25 years into German reunification, the Left Party has become an established part of the political landscape. The party is strong enough to stomach Gregor Gysi’s decision not to run for parliamentary leadership in mid-October. His has been the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag since 2013, but his dream of participating in government on a national level is likely to remain unfulfilled for some time to come. There is simply too much discord with the Social Democrats and the Greens, who have gradually been moving towards the center of the political spectrum. The space they have vacated has now been occupied by the aptly name Left party.