Former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine has had a tumultuous career in politics, withdrawing twice from the limelight in the past three decades. But this pugnacious and passionate "Napoleon" is back for his Waterloo.
A fiery orator with something to say
On March 11, 1999, Oskar Lafontaine, known as the mastermind behind Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's victory over Helmut Kohl the year before, resigned as finance minister. He also withdrew as Social Democratic Party (SPD) chairman and gave up his seat in parliament.
Suddenly, shockingly, "Red Oskar" as he was called by his opponents, was gone.
Now six years later, he's back again.
After murmurings last year about forming a new left-wing party after he accused the SPD leadership of "selling out," Lafontaine has decided he has a chance to get rid of a bitter enemy, Schröder, in Germany's next general election, widely expected to be held in September -- a year earlier than scheduled.
Marching for social justice
Finally quitting the target of much of his vitriol, the SPD, after 39 years last month -- much to the relief of many party members -- Lafontaine made an appearance in the east Germany city of Chemnitz two weeks ago and told a few thousand supporters holding anti-government posters that the country's leaders had "lied" to the people while being on the payrolls of industry.
"We are not pawns," he told the crowd. "We are the people."
Famous for his ability to rouse a crowd, Lafontaine is equally known for his gaffes. This time was no different: he attacked business and government for allowing jobs to be taken by Fremdarbeiter, or foreign workers. It's terminology not used since Nazi times and came under criticism even by those on the left. Lafontaine was accused by many of pandering to another disillusioned group, the far-right.
He also hopes to attract those leftist voters angered by the centrist politics of the SPD under Schröder as well as former communists in the east. And so far, the SPD is worried, particularly as polls show that the new "Democratic Left" alliance between Lafontaine's Election Alternative for Social Justice (WASG) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to East Germany's communist party, could attract some 10 percent of the vote, or even more.
The ruling SPD has already announced an initiative to tax the rich more heavily in what is seen as ploy to woo the left.
"He (Lafontaine) will attract the protest vote and could hurt us when we are already losing ground," said one long-time SPD member of parliament who knows both Lafontaine and Schröder. "He's dangerous."
A comeback kid
No one underestimates Lafontaine, in spite of a long history of losses.
"He is very intelligent and a masterful player of politics" said Evelyn Roll, a journalist at Süddeutche Zeitung and a biographer of Lafontaine. "He comes off as a provincial dandy but he has talents that is rarely seen in politics."
Born in 1943, educated by Jesuits, Lafontaine began his political career in Saarland, rising through the SPD ranks to become local chairman in 1977. In the early 1980s, he ran the left-wing movement of his party and is credited as the architect of the SPD's environment and employment policy.
He bucked heads with some party officials when he criticized then SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's policy of allowing NATO to station nuclear weapons in Germany before becoming governor of Saarland in 1985. He turned down the SPD chairmanship in 1987 and survived an assassination attempt in 1990, but continued to lose support in the polls when he opposed immediate German reunification -- Kohl trounced him in the 1990 election.
SPD-chairman Rudolf Scharping, was ousted by his deputy
Afterwards, it seemed that the imperious rebel was gone. But the "comeback" kid did indeed come back.
Lafontaine wanted to run for chancellor again after he became chairman of the SPD in 1995, ousting Rudolf Scharping in a ruthless power play at a party congress, and using his platform to up the criticism of Kohl and re-establish the party's confidence. But he was seen as too far to the left to run in the next general election, and he swallowed the bitter pill of supporting Schröder when he himself realized that the SPD needed to attract more centrist voters to win.
In 1998, he was appointed finance minister in Schröder's new government after being credited with forming the Red-Green coalition and helping the chancellor win the election against Kohl. But clashes over policy with the more economically conservative Schröder led to his resignation from the government and party leadership, a move seen by some in the party as a betrayal.
"Some in the SPD still get tears in their eyes when they remember that day," said Roll.
Since then, he has remained in the background, writing books and articles on his farm in the Saarland, occasionally lambasting the Schröder administration in his Bild newspaper column or on political talk shows, while still publicly supporting the government at party rallies. His 1999 book, "Das Herz schlägt links" ("The Heart Beats on the Left") was an instant bestseller followed by "Die Wut wächst" ("The Anger Is Growing") in 2000, both rants against the SPD selling out.
As the country's oldest party, the SPD, continued to lose out in the polls and in elections to the conservatives, Lafontaine saw an opportunity to harness the discontent.
Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine, a natural team, some say
He's teamed up with fellow populist Gregor Gysi from the east. They both hope to attract those who felt left behind by globalization and government reforms, with a platform that remains essentially unchanged from his days at the SPD: maintaining pensions, welfare benefit wage levels or even increasing them and raising taxes.
While the political establishment has screamed over the maneuver, some political observers say it was obbvious that Lafontaine has been waiting for "revenge" while still others applaud it.
Well-known social and political commentator Friedhelm Hengsbach, a professor at Frankfurt's Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology College calls the initiative "innovative" and an "achievement."
"Both (Lafontaine and Gysi) are characters and have enormous powers of mobilization," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "But they represent alternatives to politicians who say there are no alternatives."