The socialist Left party could win its first state premiership in Germany on Sunday at the Thuringia election, in coalition with the center-left SPD. Bodo Ramelow is ready for the job.
Frank Speerschneider is a stone-mason in the town of Saalfeld, Thuringia, in eastern Germany. On this late summer day he is working on the sandstone façade of the Hollmann Driving School in the center of town. On the other side of the pedestrian-zone the socialist Left party has just set up a small stage. Bodo Ramelow, the party's leading candidate in Sunday's state election, is on the march.
"When, if not now?" is printed on a large banner. This time, Ramelow wants to seal the deal and become the Left party's first state premier in Germany - in Thuringia of all places, which has been governed by Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union since 1990. And that it should be Ramelow of all people, who until recently was under surveillance by Germany's federal intelligence agency.
"Yes," says Speerschneider the stone-mason, he could imagine seeing Ramelow governing the state. "Things might change for once." Ramelow may be from western Germany, but he knows Thuringia's problems, insists Speerschneider. And one other thing: Ramelow, he claims, is a doer, not a talker.
Many Thuringians feel the same way. Next to the incumbent premier, the CDU's Christine Lieberknecht, Ramelow is the most famous politician in Thuringia, with the second highest popularity ratings. Some call the garrulous, self-confident leftist a "one-man opposition." He was even in a position to take the state premiership in 2009, but the SPD didn't want to pave his way to power, and preferred to take on the junior partnership in a coalition with the CDU.
In the mood for government
But this time the SPD has signaled that it may be open to a partnership with the Left party. After nearly a quarter century of CDU leadership, there is a general feeling in Thuringia that a change wouldn't be a bad thing.
This is the moment that Ramelow has been waiting, and working, for. He is a determined man who won't give up just because it seems hopeless or unpopular. On top of that, the 58-year-old is to Thuringia what Left party leader Gregor Gysi is for Germany as a whole: eloquent and hard to beat in a battle of rhetoric.
At the campaign event in Saalfeld, Ramelow explains in a quick-fire delivery all the things he would do better than the current CDU/SPD state government, from building flood defenses through re-claiming the energy companies for the state ownership all the way to restructuring the outsized state bureaucracy. He overwhelms his listeners with a cornucopia of detailed knowledge in an attempt to give the impression that he is a man of action finally ready to give his energy free rein in government.
Spied on for decades
Ramelow has spent the past 25 years working towards the auspicious prospect of governing his new home state with either the Social Democrats or the Greens. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the then trade union official from the state of Hesse moved east to help set up new unions. Some call him a "Wossi" - a mix of the two German slang names for East and West Germans: "Ossi" and "Wessi" - which marks him as one of the rare Germans who moved from West to East. In 1993 Ramelow organized a legendary strike against the closure of a mine in Bischofferode.
He made regular headlines with a drawn-out legal battle against his own surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz, which he won last year before the Constitutional Court. Germany's domestic intelligence agency had kept tabs on him even before the fall of the Wall, when he still lived in West Germany, because in the 1980s he joined forces with a post office official who was dismissed from public service for belonging to the German Communist Party (DKP).
A Thuringian newspaper revived the story during the election campaign. But Ramelow has no regrets. "Not because I was a communist myself, but because I take the constitution seriously and communists must also be allowed their freedom of opinion," he told DW.
'The slightly different comrade'
Ramelow is capable of defying his own comrades too. At the Left party conference in June 2013 he was one of the few delegates to vote against the entire general election manifesto, because he was unhappy with the way the passage on "Faith and Religion" had been rushed through late at night. "My soul rebelled," he said later. As a Protestant Christian he is one of the few regular churchgoers in the Left party. At the start of the year, Ramelow gave a guest sermon at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin in which he called for the economic and financial policies to take their lead from the Bible more. The Old Testament, he said, forbade high interest rates and the exploitation of the poor. As the Berlin daily taz once said, Ramelow is "a slightly different comrade."
Because he believes in government responsibility, and does not want to see his party in permanent opposition, Ramelow is counted among the reform wing of the Left party. He says the policies of the SPD, the Greens, and the Left in Thuringia are 80 percent compatible - mainly because state parliaments don't have to deal with foreign policy and military missions abroad.