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"We Can't Realistically Hope to Win"

Christian F. Trippe interviewed Gregor GysiAugust 13, 2005

Germany's new Left Party has been rising in the polls and is likely to enter Germany's parliament after elections scheduled for Sept. 18. DW-TV spoke to Gregor Gysi, one of the party's leaders, about his plans.

Gysi wants new stock market speculation and wealth taxesImage: dpa

DW-TV: Mr. Gysi, you're 57 years old, you're a solicitor, you were born in Berlin and after German unification you managed to transform the East German communist party, the SED, into the Party of Democratic Socialism, the PDS. Now the PDS has formed an alliance with politicians who broke away from Gerhard Schröder's governing Social Democratic Party. It is taking part in the general election under the new name of "Left Party," and almost out of nothing it has managed to get 11 to 12 percent in the opinion polls. How do you explain this lightning achievement?

Gregor Gysi: Well, it's not yet an election result, but opinion polls, and I'm cautious in these matters. When German unification came many familiar institutions in East Germany disappeared. We knew that if we'd dissolve the party as well, it would create an unmanageable chaos. But what we achieved then always had one big flaw: We were seen as a political party which had its roots in communist East Germany. Now we're in a situation where Gerhard Schröder and his SPD have governed for seven years in a way which has willy-nilly created a new need for leftist politics in Germany. Many people understand that neo-liberalism cannot be the solution to our problems.

What does the Left Party have to offer people? After all, the SPD didn't like to cut back on the welfare state in its seven years of government, but did it under great pains. What makes you so sure that you can do better?

Vertrauensfrage Bundestag Gerhard Schröder
Schröder after his speech to justify the vote of confidence he requested in parliament to trigger early elections on July 1Image: AP

Well, I can't see that Gerhard Schröder suffered many pains, he has always looked pretty cheerful, and others, too. But if you tell me that you have seen them in agony, then I gladly take note of that.

Well, just look at the painful struggle for reform.

Yes, there were some people who suffered. But there were always the others, the protagonists of the neo-liberalist zeitgeist who said, "We can only revive the economy by cutting taxes for the rich and for big companies, and at the same time cutting back on the welfare state: cutting back on pensions and unemployment benefits and forcing the sick to pay more for the health service." We say: There is another way, and we prove its viability with examples like those of Britain, Sweden and other countries, and we say 'no' to the reforms here. Only when we regain some social justice, more social welfare, more real wage increases, only then can the economy recover.

But Germany's problem is that the welfare state has become too expensive. And you haven't come up with an answer to that, namely how the Left Party would keep the welfare state going, how it would pay for it.

DAX steigt Börse Frankfurt
Gysi's party wants to tax speculation on the stock marketImage: AP

Well, you haven't asked me yet. If you want to improve the welfare state you'll have to raise the money. So, we've proposed a new tax system which would enlist the business world in a reasonable way, especially big business. It means that we have to change our tax system. We want to introduce a stock market speculation tax and a wealth tax. We have worked it all out. The accusation that medium incomes would be taxed most in our system is rubbish. We have presented a tax system which would bring in at least 64 billion euros ($79.4 billion) a year. And we need the money because otherwise we won't be able to improve the welfare state and reduce public debt in order to keep to the Maastricht criteria. So, I think there's an exciting debate going on.

You talk about opposition to the neo-liberal mainstream, opposition to cuts in the welfare state. But why only opposition? Don't you want to carry out these policies in government?

It's not possible. We can't realistically hope to win more than 50 percent of the votes.

But you could aim for a coalition.

Galerie Berliner Mauer: Mauerfall
Did the German welfare state suffer because of the fall of the Berlin wall?Image: AP

Yes - but who with? They are all basically neo-liberals. You see, it would mean the SPD would have to go through a process -- presumably in opposition -- of considering that their reform policies might have been wrong. A new faction would have to emerge, to lead the party back to its Social Democratic roots. I think that may well happen -- but not this year. What we need first of all is public debate of these issues -- in the media as well. I have the impression, talking to people in western Germany that they think eastern Germany is to blame for the scaling back of the welfare state. And that hurts a little. Of course there were political, economic, moral and democratic reasons for the end of the Soviet system. But I got the impression that some people in the West now seem to be saying that the social welfare state was just a compromise, set up as a counter-balance to what was offered under communism -- and that now we don't need it any more. And we have to do something against that.

Continue reading to find out more about Gysi's visions for his party's future.

So are you saying you want to lead the SPD back to its Social Democratic past, and then you could imagine working with them?

Well I would say that Oskar Lafontaine maybe wants that more than me -- he was once the SPD leader, after all. I was never a member of the SPD. But in terms of a coalition -- that would be a prerequisite, yes. Because then we would have similar goals and we would be able to reach compromises together. But when our goals are so different -- how could you find any middle ground?

Oskar Lafontaine isn't just a former SPD leader -- he's also the declared arch-enemy of Chancellor Schröder. Do you worry that you are just giving him the opportunity to take some kind of personal revenge?

Bildergalerie Gerhard Schröder 19
Oskar Lafontaine hugs Gerhard Schröder after his election as chancellor in 1998. The two had a falling out soon afterImage: dpa

No, that doesn't worry me. Gerhard Schröder has been on his way out since the North Rhine-Westphalia election. Oskar Lafontaine knows that, too. He knows that he probably won't even see Schröder in parliament any more. Lafontaine knows that our new party -- to the left of the Social Democrats - will be a significant political force. And in years to come, we might be able to work with the SPD if they return to their roots. Of course people might think there are other factors motivating Oskar Lafontaine -- that's perfectly legitimate. Who wouldn't think that? But in my opinion, it has very little to do with Gerhard Schröder any more.

The East German SED became the SED-PDS, then the PDS. Now it's the Left Party. What will you be called in five years?

I honestly can't say. Because the truth is, we have not merged with the WASG in western Germany. The WASG has decided not to stand at the election. We are standing. I don't want to go into the legal details right now. But if we get into parliament -- and I hope we will -- then for the first time, we will have more members of parliament from the west than from the east. For the other parties that's perfectly normal -- but not for mine. These are new challenges. In time, the leadership of the two parties will realize that the only sensible option is to merge. And in 80 percent of our policies, that won't be a problem. For 15 percent, some discussion will be needed. And for 5 percent it will be really difficult. But we'll get there. And then there will be a new name.

Which might be what?

Wahlparteitag der PDS jetzt Die Linkspartei
Gysi and PDS leader Norbert BiskyImage: AP

Oh please don't ask such difficult questions! I think the main thing will be "The Left." That's easy to remember. It's what we're already labeled as, and that's fine. At least you know then where you stand with us. We certainly won't succumb to the ridiculous temptation to campaign as the Party of the New Center.