The Left party remains a political pariah, both for its belligerent attitude and its roots in the East German dictatorship. But if recent state level success continues, the Left party will become difficult to ignore.
The Left party has had various guises since its birth
A glance at the Left party's website shows where its priorities and its ambitions lie. "The Left party is entering these elections aspiring to take part in the formation of governments, and it is prepared to lead these governments," the homepage reads. Though it was founded in 2005 under the name Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice, the Left party has apparently shed its oppositional position and is beginning to feel strong enough to test its socialist agenda in government.
Despite ostensible successes at a regional level and a clear national profile in the media, the Left party is still regarded as political poison by its rivals in the west of the country – any hint that a politician might harbor fantasies of a coalition with the Left generally ignites a round of indignation. The Left's position as the direct successors of the Party of Democratic Socialism and by extension the ruling party of former East Germany, the SED, is still a stigma.
Part of this reputation is down to the controversial past of Gregor Gysi, co-chairman of the Left's parliamentary group. A member of the SED since 1967, Gysi rose to prominence around the time of Germany's reunification, playing an instrumental part in the internal re-organization of the SED and its reinvention as the PDS, of which he became the first party chairman. His charisma and rhetorical gift made him an important leader of the Left party, but his record has been stained recently by accusations that he was an informant for the East German secret police, the Stasi.
Gregor Gysi has been both a popular and shadowy element in the Left's leadership
After steadily improving election results throughout the 1990s, the PDS/Left party managed to enter coalition governments, or support SPD-led minority governments, in a few states in the former East Germany (GDR). Much of its success in the west depends on Oskar Lafontaine, the high-profile SPD defector whose pugnacious media presence has given the party its recent national profile.
Social and economic policy
Lafontaine's statements, such as "We want to overthrow capitalism," in an interview with Der Spiegel in May 2009, frequently give the impression that the party deliberately fosters this provocative anti-establishment image. But its policies, though radical, are not anti-democratic.
Central to its economic policy is a Keynesian use of state intervention to balance market forces. In the current election program, this includes socializing the entire banking system, outlawing non-transparent financial products, hedge funds, and venture capitalism, and restricting currency markets.
Reversing Schroeder's social welfare reforms has been a unifying cause in the Left party
On a social level, the Left's economic plan would mean the introduction of a minimum hourly wage of 10 euros ($14.30), raising top-rate income tax from 42 percent to 53 percent, and scrapping the Hartz IV unemployment benefit reforms introduced under Gerhard Schroeder's government. As a stop-gap during this transition, the Left would raise long-term unemployment benefit, currently at 345 euros a month, to 500 euros, raise child benefit to 200 euros a month, and introduce a minimum pension of 800 euros.
There would be a similar spending spree in education. The Left would not only ditch university tuition fees, but would redirect a full 7 percent of Germany's gross domestic product into education. The three-tier, ability-based school system would also be abandoned in favor of a universal school until 10th grade.
The Left also has a decidedly green agenda on the environment, seeing fossil fuels and nuclear energy as relics of the 20th century. Like the Green party, it hopes to switch Germany onto renewable energies, though with a slightly more conservative timeframe than the Greens, eventually lowering Germany's greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050.
But the Left party takes a harder line on nuclear power, for which it believes the safety risks are unacceptable. If in power, the party would demand that all nuclear power plants be shut down as soon as possible, and would introduce a ban on exporting nuclear technology.
Foreign and security policy
On foreign policy and security issues, the Left party is equally uncompromising. It demands an immediate withdrawal of the German army from Afghanistan, and in fact would end all German army missions abroad. On top of this, the Left party would like to see NATO replaced by a collective security organization with Russia as a member.
In the question of internal security, the Left party perhaps belies its roots in the dictatorial GDR. In power, it would end the new anti-terrorist powers granted to the police, for example, banning remote online searches and the storage of personal data. It would also ban the far-right National Democratic Party, lower the voting age to 16, and introduce voting rights for immigrants.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Deanne Corbett