Transforming Germany's political landscape

AFTER YEARS of trying to shake the stigma of being a "regional" party that can only be successful in Eastern Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), now known as "Die Linke" (the Left Party), is starting to significantly change the political landscape of the entire country.

Important state elections were held in the two Western German states of Lower Saxony and Hesse on January 27. The Left Party managed to get into both regional parliaments by gaining 7.1 percent of the vote in Lower Saxony and 5.1 percent in Hesse, thus clearing the "5 percent hurdle" (a rule that was introduced after the Second World War to prevent the political fragmentation witnessed earlier during the Weimar Republic).

While this may or may not change the immediate status quo for either state--the Christian Democrats remain the strongest party in Lower Saxony, and the election in Hesse resulted in a hung parliament, which may lead to a new election--the impact on German politics cannot be denied.

The recent electoral victories in large Western German states would have been unthinkable as little as four years ago. Key to the success was the collaboration in 2005 of the PDS with the then-newly founded Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG, by its German abbreviation). In the 2005 federal elections, this coalition won 8.7 percent of the vote, more than double what the PDS was able to get in the previous federal election of 2002.

The WASG was mainly comprised of trade union representatives and ex-Social Democratic Party (SPD) members who became increasingly disgruntled with their former party's Tony Blair-like turn toward the "neue Mitte" (new center).

The corresponding neoliberal outlook associated with this turn by the SPD resulted in steep cuts in social benefits under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and a mass exodus of rank-and-file members who had a very different vision of what "social equity" should entail.

The PDS, on the other hand, is the successor of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled in the former GDR (East Germany) until 1990. There are undoubtedly still Stalinist remnants in the party. Others, including high-ranking party officials, like the European parliament member Andre Brie, would like to soften the party's critique of capitalism and give it a decidedly social democratic profile.

However, there are also vibrant Marxist currents in the party. One is centered on the publication Marx 21, put out by former members of the socialist group Linksruck, which disbanded last year and entered the Left Party.

The PDS-WASG coalition was made permanent in the summer of last year, when the new Left Party was born with about 70,000 members, the vast majority, about 60,000, coming from the PDS. That makes it the third-largest political party in Germany, behind the two mass parties: the SPD and Christian Democrats.

Along with the PDS-WASG fusion came the political heavyweight Oskar Lafontaine. Having lost a power struggle with Schröder inside the SPD and increasingly disgusted with how the SPD continued to betray social democratic principles, Lafontaine joined the WASG after a stint with the European global justice organization ATTAC.

While there is no doubt that a good deal of the success in Western Germany is due to the fact that Lafontaine is a household name in the West, it also comes at a cost. Lafontaine tries to portray himself as a left-winger and a champion of the disenfranchised, an image he fostered through his autobiography, My Heart Beats on the Left. The reality, however, is a little more checkered.

Lafontaine is actually a populist. Like most populists, he believes he understands what people think, and caters to their aspirations as well as their fears. Furthermore, he isn't afraid to play on people's most base instincts. This became evident when, during an electoral campaign stop in Chemnitz in 2005, he deliberately chose the historically charged word "fremdarbeiter" ("foreign worker") instead of the commonly used "gastarbeiter" ("guest worker") in a discussion on unemployment.

Not only was the message one of pure scapegoating (i.e., that you're currently unemployed because migrant workers are snatching up your jobs for lesser wages), but it had blatant racist connotations since the term "fremdarbeiter" was used for forced labor deported from occupied territories during the Third Reich. Though Lafontaine denied it, it was obvious that this message was directly aimed at attracting voters of the far-right National Democratic Party.

A closer look at Lafontaine's political record reveals more inconsistencies. In the late 1980s, he supported a reduction in weekly work hours, but only if wages were scaled back accordingly, which rightly brought him the scorn of trade unions.

In the early 1990s, he pushed his party to support more stringent changes to laws regarding asylum-seekers. He has since also supported the idea of establishing holding camps for refugees in Northern Africa. Baiting people with right populist rhetoric in times of economic uncertainty and high unemployment is thus nothing new to him.

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IT IS certainly refreshing that a new, viable political alternative to the degenerated Social Democratic Party is emerging on the left. The recent electoral results indicate that the Left Party will most likely change the political landscape for good and turn it into a five-party system.

What remains to be seen is whether the revolutionary current within the Left Party is strong enough to have a positive impact. Therefore, the final verdict on the Left Party is still out.

The case of Germany and the Left Party is obviously not unique. There are numerous examples of left alternatives trying to fill the political void created by rightward-moving social democratic and green parties the world over, from Denmark to Brazil.

With revolutionary forces typically being too small to fill this void themselves, coalitions with more mainstream, "broad left" organizations, such as Respect in Britain, have been formed. In Germany's case, this took the somewhat more permanent form of the Left Party, but the idea is the same.

Inevitably, when working with forces that are often a lot further to the right, political friction will occur. However, that fact alone should not discourage Marxists from entering these coalitions.

More important is whether the internal debate within the coalition or party is open and democratic, and individual currents are not being undermined or squeezed out. A harder question is where to draw the line, and not abandon core principles for the sake of keeping a coalition intact.

The approach of wanting to remain "pure" will most likely mean that one's revolutionary organization, which invariably wants to reach out to the working "masses," remains in political obscurity. Entering a "broad left" coalition or party, on the other hand, means one will most likely have to deal with political opportunists, such as Lafontaine.

No blueprint exists to determine where, when or how to construct a broad left coalition. Each situation has to be evaluated on an individual basis.

The dilemma is that in this period of political retreat, we are a far cry from finding a mass base for revolutionary politics. Until that trend changes, entering "broad left" formations can be a useful and indeed necessary interim strategy, as long as the long-term goal of building a truly revolutionary organization is not forgotten and is actively pursued.
Folko Mueller, Houston