Germany's socialist Left Party is the smallest party represented in the Bundestag. Why is it not more successful?
Germany's most important socialist party is always caught in a paradox — though well-established electorally across the country and a fixture in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, the Left Party (called Die Linke in German) is still treated as a pariah by the country's other political parties.
That's partly because the Left's most natural coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is in perpetual dither-mode about a possible alliance. At a regional level, the SPD has worked more or less in harmony with the Left in many state governments, but at a national level, the Social Democrats still get cold feet about the Left's intransigence on certain points of foreign military policy.
History — you have nothing to lose but your acronyms
The Left's ambiguous, and slightly bewildering, history is another reason why other parties keep their distance. The fact that some of the Left's members were once part of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which ran the East German dictatorship, still puts many German voters off — especially older ones.
The SED mutated into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and established itself as a quasi-communist opposition party throughout the 1990s. It fed off the disenchantment in eastern Germany as many formerly state-owned industries were privatized without any tangible benefit to the economy in the "new" German states.
But while in its nascent years it was mainly an anti-capitalist protest party, the Left also gained real political responsibility at the state level — joining coalition governments with the SPD in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, and has even led the government of Thuringia, under state premier Bodo Ramelow, since 2014.
But that is only half of the Left Party's story. In western Germany, the PDS enjoyed a significant boost in 2004 when a group of disgruntled SPD members and trade unionists, sick of what they saw as the increasingly neoliberal bent of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, split from the party and founded the awkwardly-named Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG).
The PDS formed an electoral alliance with the WASG at the 2005 general election and entered the Bundestag easily with 8.7% of the vote — more than double what the PDS had managed alone in 2002.
The east and west socialists gave up their acronyms in 2007 when they formally fused to create the Left Party. That alliance was driven to no small extent by the firebrand leader Oskar Lafontaine, the ex-SPD man from western Germany who had dramatically abandoned the finance minister role under Schröder in 1999. Lafontaine and SED veteran Gregor Gysi (a hugely popular figure in eastern Germany), became two of the party's dominant figures.
But more moderate members believe the Left's purpose is just to crop capitalism's neoliberal excesses — mainly through market regulation and a social welfare system that isn't based on punitive sanctions. Broadly, these two branches were long reflected in the Left's two top election candidates — Sahra Wagenknecht, a fixture on German political talk shows, is the occasionally populist firebrand, while Dietmar Bartsch is the moderate conciliator.
Here are the party's key pledges are to raise the minimum wage and state pensions, to scrap the sanctions-based unemployment benefit system, called Hartz IV, to tax fortunes of over €1 million in order to fund infrastructure and schools, to make the health care system egalitarian, ban property speculation, withdraw German soldiers from all foreign missions, and ban all weapons exports.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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