The Rise and Fall of Germany's Left Party

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Rise and Fall of Germany's Left Party

Der Spiegel

Stefan Berg and Sarah Pancur

January 12, 2011

The Left Party's leadership, old and new, at a ceremony on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the murders of communist leaders Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. From left to right: Oskar Lafontaine, Gregor Gysi, Gesine Lötzsch and Klaus Ernst.

Not so long ago, the Left Party was hailed as a radical new force that would give a voice to millions of people who felt the country was no longer delivering social justice. But it has failed to build on its early success. Its charismatic founders have retired, its new leadership is weak and it is beset by in-fighting.

When Germany's Left Party was founded in 2007, it looked destined to shake up Germany with a radical, populist social agenda that rapidly won support and shifted the entire political spectrum to the left -- even Chancellor Merkel's conservatives adopted shades of pink.

The emergence of a new political force left of the center-left Social Democratic Party threw the SPD into turmoil by attracting voters incensed at the welfare cutbacks pushed through by the SPD-led government in 2003 and 2004.

But the Left Party, formed out of an alliance between former eastern communists and disgruntled western Social Democrats and trade unionists, has not lived up to its early promise. Its current leadership is divided and weak, it is losing members as a result of intrigue and persistent quarelling in local party organizations, and it doesn't have a convincing manifesto to take it into seven important state elections this year.

Its problems were highlighted last week by an ill-judged statement from co-leader Gesine Lötzsch in a guest commentary for a left-wing newspaper in which she said: "We can only find the paths to communism if we hit the road and try them out, whether in opposition or in government."

The remark drew heavy criticism from rival parties but also from within the Left Party, which is keen to shake its associations with the communist party that ruled East Germany. It has also prompted fresh questions about whether the party's current leaders are up to the job.

Departure of Patriarchs
"We don't want to be and we won't be a communist party," Bodo Ramelow, the regional parliamentary group leader of the Left Party in the eastern state of Thuringia, told reporters, adding that the millions of people killed in the name of communism must not be forgotten.

The Left Party is looking increasingly rudderless these days. Last May, Lötzsch, from eastern Berlin and Klaus Ernst, a former trade union official from Bavaria, were elected as joint leaders after the charismatic patriarch of the party, Oskar Lafontaine, retired from national politics and his co-leader Lothar Bisky didn't want to go on either.

The new leaders paled in comparison with their predecessors who had presided over impressive electoral gains in state elections. Lötzsch and Ernst were always regarded as a stopgap solution. But no one realized that they would be quite this bad.

Rarely has a German party risen and declined in such a brief period. When the eastern German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) -- the successor to East Germany's Communist Party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) -- formed an alliance in 2005 with the smaller western German WASG party, the sky had seemed the limit.

Lafontaine, the former leader of the SPD who resigned as finance minister in 1999 in a power stuggle with SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, used the new alliance to mount a campaign of revenge against the center-left SPD he felt had abandoned its socialist roots.

He dreamed of turning the party into a central powerbroker in national politics, and he almost made it. In 2007, he offered then-SPD leader Kurt Beck a left-wing alliance that could have made Beck chancellor. One year later, Lafontaine declared: "The Left Party is governing from the opposition. We are determining the political agenda."

What Does the Left Party Stand For?
And today? The party is still surprisingly stable in national opinion polls at between 8 and 10 percent. But its influence in national politics is waning. No one knows what it really stands for. Democratic socialism or a return to communism?

The party has failed to reconcile its two identities. Does it want to be a pragmatic, broad-based governing party like it is in eastern German states, or does it want to be a radical political sect like it is in the west? Does it favor reform or does it want the "revolutionary Realpolitik" Lötzsch is now calling for?

The current leadership lacks the authority to resolve these questions. Ernst, the former trade union official, has been generating embarrassing headlines about his supposedly luxurious lifestyle -- he drives a Porsche 911, has a cottage in the Alps and came under fire for drawing two salaries, one from his party and the other from parliament. Media have dubbed him "Porsche Klaus," and his standing in the party has suffered.

Until last week's communism controversy, Lötzsch, a senior member of the federal parliament's budget committee, hadn't attracted any negative attention. In fact, she hadn't attracted any attention at all. She appeared to have been preoccupied with plans for the refurbishment of the party's headquarters in Berlin.

The furore following her "Paths to Communism" commentary has unsettled the powerful regional Left Party leaders in eastern Germany. Behind the scenes, they are calling the leadership duo "uncapable" and "not up to the job."

The party's only true figurehead at national level is Gregor Gysi, its eloquent parliamentary group leader who has played a dominant role in the party in its various guises ever since unification. But his charisma and reputation are on the wane. Fellow party members say the quick-witted firebrand is becoming more introspective and focusing on his role in the history books.

Backbiting and Intrigue
Across western Germany, where the Left Party caused political earthquakes by winning seats in the state parliaments of Lower Saxony, Hesse, Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia in quick succession after 2007, local party organizations are descending into petty quarrels, backbiting and intrigue.

In Gelsenkirchen, the entire Left Party group in the western German city assembly dissolved itself on Dec. 20 and reconstituted itself the next day as "Citizens' Alliance Gelsenkirchen."

"I was sick of the constant rows, intrigues and mediation committees, and of being shown up by one's own people," said one of the councillors, Ralf Herrmann.

In Cologne, the party lost 56 members in one day last April. The party was in a "hopelessly desolate" state in the city, they said in a joint statement. The regional association had turned into an "uncontrollable group" whose members held such divergent views that it was no longer possible to conduct credible political work, the statement said.

In the city-state of Bremen, Sirvan Cakici, 30, quit the Left Party and joined the SPD at the end of November. She had been its local spokeswoman on social affairs and immigration and said she "regretted having become a member of the Left Party. It was a four-year nightmare and I would turn the clock back if I could."

But despite all the quarrelling and bad headlines, support for the Left Party has remained firm, in marked contrast with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is in a deep state of crisis after slumping in opinion polls to below the 5 percent threshold needed for entry into parliaments.

Political analysts say left-wing voters tend to be resistant to bad press because they expect the "bourgeois media" to villify them. In fact, negative headlines tend to stiffen their resolve rather than turn them off.

But the loss of members poses a risk to the party's prospects. Left Party bosses should also be worried about waning support among trade union leaders, some of whom have been quietly telling the SPD that they regret having flirted with the Left Party.

Unsurprisingly, the SPD is savoring the woes of the party that has caused it such trouble since 2007. SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel recently invited Left Party members who were sick of all the "nonsense" to come and join the SPD.
Niccolo and Donkey