The German Left in Troubled Times
by Dan Hough and Michael Koss and Jonathan Olsen
October 30, 2007, The Economist
ASK Ralf Pietras why the Left Party is growing in Duisburg and he offers a ready answer. The coal mines are exhausted, steel is forged by machine and old folk scavenge for bottles to reclaim the deposits. Duisburg, a gritty town at the junction of the Rhine and the Ruhr, has lost 35,000 good jobs in 15 years. In such adversity, the Left Party thrives. Its local membership has quintupled since it began in 2005, to 330. Mr Pietras, spokesman of the Duisburg branch, dreams of 1,000. The local Social Democratic Party (SPD), which ruled the city for 56 years until 2004, has lost half its membership in two decades.
Frighteningly for the SPD, this is a national trend. It has been governing in Berlin, from 1998 to 2005 under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, since then as the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s “grand coalition”. But as the Left Party gnaws away at its working-class base, the SPD is starting to panic. The clearest sign is a call by the SPD’s boss, Kurt Beck, to extend the period for paying unemployment benefit to older workers. Franz Muentefering, the SPD vice-chancellor under Ms Merkel, has denounced the idea as a “U-turn” from reforms enacted by the Schroeder government. The press is speculating that his resignation may be imminent. Mr Beck threatens the foundations of the grand coalition, the Christian Democrats claim.
Why is a small party founded by east German former communists causing national ructions? One reason is that the economic upswing has left so many Germans behind. Unemployment is at its lowest level since the early 1990s, thanks partly to the reforms that Mr Beck now wants to roll back. But many of the new jobs offer lower pay and less security than those lost during the downturn, notes Markus Grabka of DIW, a research institute in Berlin. Relative poverty has jumped, with 17% of Germans earning less than 60% of the median in 2005, up from 12% in 1999. Income-tax cuts have helped the rich; the middle class has shrunk.
On these matters the Left Party is saying what most Germans seem to be thinking. According to one recent poll, 82% of Germans want to lower the retirement age from 67 (reversing another reform), two-thirds want a minimum wage and 72% think the grand coalition should do more to promote social justice. Half want German troops out of Afghanistan, but the Left Party is the only one that unqualifiedly agrees. Unlike the Greens and the Free Democrats, it has no reason to flirt with either party in the grand coalition (the SPD refuses to consider it as a potential partner at federal level).
It likes to claim it is Germany’s only real opposition party.
This has come about mostly by luck. The Left Party is the third incarnation of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party, which had 2.3m members when the regime collapsed in 1989. It struggled back to life as the Party of Democratic Socialism, trying to be a normal party by catering to Ossis who felt swamped by unification. The Left Party is still strongest in the east: it wins almost a quarter of votes in the six eastern states, has been in a coalition in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and is now the SPD’s partner in the city of Berlin.
It was a bust-up within the SPD that gave the Left Party its purchase in the west. Social Democrats dismayed by Mr Schroeder’s reforms broke away to form Alternative Labour and Social Justice (WASG), which fought alongside the PDS in the 2005 election. Between them they took almost 9% of the vote. They formally merged into the Left Party in June.
This hybrid works mainly because there is no risk of its assuming national responsibilities anytime soon. It has two leaders: Lothar Bisky, a film-studies professor from Brandenburg (though Gregor Gysi is the party’s true eastern star), and Oskar Lafontaine, a firebrand from Saarland given to populist rhetoric, who was once SPD chairman. The SPD loathes Mr Lafontaine for abruptly quitting as Mr Schroeder’s finance minister in 1999. It has just published “Oskar’s World”, a supposedly incriminating compendium of remarks by and about him.
The Left Party’s policy documents drip with hostility to capitalism. It leans toward pacifism in foreign policy and against the hawkish European Central Bank.
The long-term goal, says Dietmar Bartsch, its general secretary, is “another society” to be achieved by “evolution, not revolution”. Higher taxes and lower defence spending would bring greater equality.
The party’s eastern wing has communist remnants (and a libertarian strain, exemplified by Saxony’s Julia Bonk, who favours a “right to get high”). But its leaders have been sobered by proximity to power. In the city of Berlin, the Left Party has abetted austerity measures such as pay cuts for public workers that would be deemed heresy in parts of the SPD. Such decisions show that “we are not merely a fair-weather party,” says Harald Wolf, Berlin’s economy minister.
Pragmatism is less evident in the former WASG, which is dominated by the politics of protest. Though less inclined to call themselves socialists, the westerners care less about fiscal responsibility. Lacking experience in power, they are unwilling to get it by compromise. AndrA(c) Brie, an eastern moderniser, recently warned westerners (and some easterners) against “black and white thinking” reminiscent of communist times. The Left Party’s democratic credentials are often questioned, but Dan Hough says in a new book* that its leaders are all democrats. The main obstacles to co-operation with the SPD in the west are Mr Lafontaine and the stigma of the party’s communist past.
The Left Party’s short-term aims are thus modest. In most western states its vote is close to the 5% level needed to get into the legislature. It has already cracked Bremen’s and could enter up to three more next year. Even in fertile Duisburg, the SPD’s shrunken membership still dwarfs that of the Left Party and it dominates the local media, complains Mr Pietras. Hence the immediate ambition, says Mr Bartsch, “to shift the axis of politics to the left.”
The SPD’s troubles suggest this may be happening. That does not guarantee the Left Party a bright future. It could be hurt by a more populist SPD, by greater prosperity (incomes have picked up during the revival of the past two years) or by its own internal contradictions. But it could also evolve into a permanent candidate for coalition with the SPD (and perhaps the Greens), including at federal level. The risk then would be of losing what makes it distinctive.
But the SPD’s panic may not truly subside until the Left Party becomes a potential partner, not a competitor.
* “The Left Party in Contemporary German Politics”, by Dan Hough, Michael Koss and Jonathan Olsen. Palgrave Macmillan.