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The new Left Party of Germany and the coming elections

by whataboutbob Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 06:50:14 AM EST

Promoted by Colman

I saw an article in the Swiss press yesterday about the "new left party" forming in Germany, and how it is making all the other parties nervous...including the current "Left Party", the SPD of Shroeder. I thought this to be big news, so went to Der Spiegel Online, and found this article:"Germany's East Heading Left", by Charles Hawley.

In this article, the author reports

German President Horst Koehler has to decide whether or not to dissolve parliament by the end of this week. Surprisingly, however, that is not the main political story in Germany these days. The new "Left Party" is on the march. And the country's politicians don't seem to know what to do about it.

I am making a plea here to our readers who are more knowledgeable about German affairs to comment more on this. But I will add a few choice quotes from the article after the fold.

And yet, despite the import of Koehler's impending verdict, there's a feeling in Germany of the calm before the proverbial storm. And the storm is not how the German President will decide on Thursday or Friday. After all, bets are that Koehler will accept the artificially constructed no confidence vote against the government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder early this month and will dissolve parliament. It's a decision that 75 percent of Germans hope will come.
No. The storm is the coming campaign. (...)The newly renamed "Left Party" - is an alliance of the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the leftist-idealists from the (take a deep breath here if reading out loud) Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG). Just days after the party's official christening, it stands to become Germany's third biggest party, boasting support of up to 12 percent, compared to 42 percent for the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) behind Angela Merkel and 27 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD) behind Schroeder. And the heavy-hitting duo of the well-known Gregor Gysi and the even better-known former SPD leader (and former German finance minister) Oskar Lafontaine is likewise not to be ignored.
Even worse for the CDU and the SPD, however, is the fact that the Left Party is now the largest party in the states of former East Germany. Fully 30 percent of voters surveyed there said they plan to vote for the Left Party against 29 percent for the CDU. In other words, a party that bases its existence on collecting Germany's dissatisfied has a future. And in the East -- where unemployment rates hover around 20 percent, which is more than double the joblessness in Germany as a whole -- that dissatisfaction is high.
It is now becoming clear to Germany's more established political parties that something needs to be done. But they very clearly don't know what that something might be. (...)And even though they are currently far ahead in the polls, the CDU too is becoming concerned about the Left Party's power in the East. Merkel's popularity ratings are once again slipping as it becomes clear that the party's election strategy is based on divulging as little as possible about its plans once in the government. Support in the East could turn out to be critical.

Well...there's a whole lot we can talk about...and the campaign hasn't started yet. But I will end with this with one observation, in form of a worry, which is about the author's comment:

"as it becomes clear that the party's election strategy is based on divulging as little as possible about its plans once in the government"

This seems too...Bushian to me...should I be worried?

And...what IF...the current SPD (or its members), takes a deep breath and joins this coalition? (Is that possible?)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 06:25:33 AM EST
No, its current leaders compromised themselves too much. (That's why the WASG-ers left.)

Personally, I am much more scared of the CDU (more so than of the CSU) and its "mainstream" agenda of the creeping Anglo-Saxonisation German economy - and of the fact that the SPD will replay the role of the Senate Democrats in the Iraq war here - than the ex-commies and 'idealists'. (BTW, while the PDS is full of old party members who more care about each other than social justice, it also absorbed younger leftist movements and reformists; and let's not forget that Gysi - who was always the face of the PDS who was popular even in the West - used to defend dissidents as a lawyer.)

In short: unlike the majority of German voters, I am more scared of the elitists than the populists.

I hope WASG/PDS can maintain the momentum and will do fine in the still far-away elections - but even that won't stop the CDU, only give voice to dissent that the SPD (and to a lesser part the Greens) won't give.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:02:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I knew I recognised his name: from the same article:
Indeed, the only party that seems to be on sure footing when dealing with the threat from the left is the Green Party. Front man Joschka Fischer has been on the attack ever since Oskar Lafontaine warned of the dangers of Fremdarbeiter, or "foreign workers", a word choice that recalled Nazi Germany and which opened up the Left Party to charges of rightist populism. Fischer has called Lafontaine a "German Pim Fortyn" -- a reference to the late Dutch populist -- and a "German Haider" -- an allusion to the right-wing populist Joerg Haider from Austria.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 06:58:28 AM EST
Hmm...are they playing the race/anti-immigrant card? Can anyone confirm?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:01:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, from what I read, not really, they are just addressing the issue, Bolkestein and such, while the main parties happily jump to paint them as xenophobic. But they walk a thin line. (Lafontaine said that they want to draw away voters from the far-right ratcatchers by talking seriously about issues the main parties won't address and the far-right uses for demonisation.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:06:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I add: the CDU's categorical rejection of Turkey's EU membership, and the sinister half-said-half-thought arguments behind, is the most significant fuel on the fire of xenophobia in my eyes.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:08:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't pretend to have much knowledge, in general, about German politics...or specifically, about the CDU...trying to upgrade here, but I have similar foreboding feelings about the CDU. When a party is about to take over and won't say exactly where they stand on issues, it is all too reminiscent of Bush Republican-ism, and we all see where that has gotten us.

Jerome has had a different take on the CDU, that they will be moderate but will stay "European", which has been somewhat reassuring...but I'm a bit paranoid...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:38:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Stay "European" the Sarkozy and Bliar way, I suspect...

What the CDU already says about its standing on issues is bad enough: back to nuckear, categoric no to Turkey, business-friendly (even if not explained in detail) reform, some more police state measures.

Now I don't think they will rush off like the Bushies, I just don't see them that ideological. They seem more impressed by the methods of neocon power than neocon goals, if they go along (and how far they go along) it's more of a serving of big business than revolutionary zeal. (For example, recently they reneged previous pleas to discontinue the environmental tax, citing budget crisis as reason.) But what they'll do will be significant damage anyway, I fear.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 08:07:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Lafontaine is absolutely playing for the extreme right wing vote. He is using extreme right wing vocabulary (Fremdarbeiter), saying that the Nazis weren't really hostile to foreigners, and talking about how horrible it is that the good German family fathers and mothers end up losing jobs to 'immigrants' (until a couple years ago it was extremely difficult for non-ethnic Germans to get citizenship, meaning that even if you were born in Germany to immigrant parents you still often don't have German citizenship and are technicallly considered an 'immigrant').

In his most recent book he calls immigration a plot forced on the Germans by elements of the elite. He says he wants to strip citizenship from insufficiently assimilated Turks (along with rich people who aren't paying there fair share of taxes). To highlight the danger of immigration he speaks of America where, horror of horrors, whites are in danger of losing their majority status within a couple years and even now you can see the scary sight of politicians using foreign languages to seek immigrant votes and how if Europeans aren't careful such nightmare scenarios might play out in Europe as well.

This is why one of the leading East German SPD politicians called him a 'hatemonger' (Hassprediger), Fischer refers to him as the German Haider, and a foot in the mouth type East German CDU pol talked of siccing the Office for the Protection of the Constitution on him. (Germany's sort of equivalent of MI-5 which among other things has the task of monitoring and fighting right and left wing extremists.)  That last is ridiculous, but Lafontaine is playing on the full spectrum of resentment of Germans frustrated with the economic stagnation and that includes some very ugly sentiments alongside some perfectly understandable ones.

For a German language analysis of this side of Lafontaine's political views see:
Oskar Haider

by MarekNYC on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 06:47:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I seriously doubt that the new Left Party will fare as good as they say right now.  They have a very strong base in East Germany and they can steal voters from the SPD, the Greens and ironically from the right protest voters in the West, but 12% sounds a bit much.

A bit of background:

  • East Germany was ruled by one-party rule under the SED.  When the wall came down, the SED renamed itself into PDS and has had a strong following in the East ever since.  They regularly get between 20% to 30% in the polls and they are part of the administration (as a junior partner with the SPD) in 3 states, IIRC.  This strong support is based in their excellent local work (especially with the youth there), their focus on East German problems and their strong anti-Nazi, pro-peace stance.  They have virtually no following in the West, where they have a tainted image as old communists.

  • 2 years ago, Schröder introduced a new reform program, which has been very controvertial from the start.  Great parts of the SPD base (along with other) were dissappointed and the WASG came into being.  The name Voting Alternative for Social Justice is program, although they're strong on general ideas and weak on the details.  (This is standard practice in Germany politics, see below.)  The WASG is not actually a party. (German law has, as usual, a very strict definition of parties.)

  • To pool their recources, the PDS and WASG decided to join, although it's more or less a take-over of the WASG by the PDS.  (Which is kinda ironic when you remember that the German unification was a take-over of the East by the West, but I digress.)  People of the WASG will be up for election on PDS lists.  In turn, the PDS decided to call itself the "Left Party" to signify a fresh start and get rid of the tainted name in the West.

Where can the Left Party get votes from:
  • from PDS voters (esp. in the East): This is their base.
  • from SPD voters (East and West): Since this is where the WASG recruited its members from, this is very likely.
  • from Green voters: Maybe some, but unlikely, because in my experience the Greens also have a strong base.
  • from FDP voters (mostly market liberals): Not a chance.
  • from CDU voters: Little chance as well.
  • from right-wing protest voters: Ironically I guess that at least some protest voters will switch from voting far right to far left.

However, it should be noted that the PDS has a much stronger following in the East than the WASG has in the West.  Since the 4/5 of Germans live in the West this does not bode well for the new Left Party, because they desperately need support in the West.  For example, in the 1998 election the PDS got 21,6% in the East and 1,2% in the West which made for a total of 5,1%.  It fared worse in 1998.

Also, the fact that the PDS is part of the administration in 3 states in the East will likely be against the new Left Party, because it's performance there is not very good.

BTW, I'm a bit surprised that the new Left Party polls so good in the East.  I'd like to see that broken down by state.

(Note, that this is my personal opinion and in no way based on facts.  I'll try to remedy that.)

Anyway, as to your choice quote, about not divulging what's gonna come after the election.  That's been the strategy for years by all parties and at least compared to the 2002 election I think that those who are paying attention know what to expect much better.

by hesk on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 01:10:35 PM EST
Thanks again, hesk, for your detailed answer. Okay, what would the New Left need to do to grow in the West part of Germany? Is there an opportunity for that to happen in the short run (ie, the next election?). And why are the other parties anxious about this new party? (or are they?).

And while I'm at it, what are your views of the CDU, since you seem pretty informed and level-headed about politics there...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 01:29:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
IHMO, if the Left Party wants to gain a following in the West they'll basically have to do do two things: Make sure the old PDS label does not taint them, as it will definitely be used against them by the other party.  Secondly, they'll have to better get their message out.  They are at a disadvantage compared to the other parties, precisely because the WASG is not actually are party - that means no local infrastructure and no money from the tax-payers although the PDS will likely take care of that.

The other parties are anxious about the Left Party for two reasons I guess:

  • CDU and FDP: They don't have to fear that potential voters will switch as they are at the opposite end of the spectrum (excluding the far right).  However, if the Left Party passes the 5% hurdle and makes it into the Bundestag it is more likely that CDU and FDP won't have the numbers to form a coalition.  In this case, the CDU and SPD would form what is usually called a Great Coalition here and the FDP would be out.

  • SPD and Greens: The Left Party will probably gain a lot of voters from the SPD and since the Greens are dependant on the SPD they don't like that as well.

Finally, as to the CDU, they're unelectable in my book, for various reasons.  Far too socially conservative for my liking.  They also plan to continue giving incentives to business at the expense of social programs which hasn't worked so far.  Finally, if the 2002 election had gone differently, Germany would now be involved in the Iraq war.

However, my views on various parties are very unspecific right now, I'm basically following my gut.  By now all parties have their program finished and I'll try to make some time to take a better look.

by hesk on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 02:51:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
hesk, I think you forgot non-voters as a very potent source - disillusioned ex-SPD-voters. Also, I wouldn't just add up the previously measured WASG and PDS popularities. WASG also polled very low because voters couldn't be sure that they pass the 5% hurdle.

On the other hand, I agree it is too early to tell how they will poll in the actual elections about two months from now, and the underperformance of PDS governments (and Gysi's own underperformance in the capital Berlin) can be played out against them.

I don't understand your surprise at the voters in the East. In 2002, Schröder won largely by drawing away voters from the PDS (with both the peace message and the august flood showmanship), one can suspect that after Harz IV, those returned to the PDS - whatever the performance of state governments. (And given that in the last dozen or so state elections, the federal-level politics seemed to play the chief role instead of local issues, maybe the latter won't matter that much in the end.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 02:07:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, if you want to follow polls - here is a nice summary of all major German polls; for those not speaking German:

On the top, "Gesamt" is all (the entire country), "Ost" is East, "West" you know I guess, "Bundesländer" is (individual) member states. On the left, "Veröffentlichung" is date of release (not of polling, unfortunately), "GRÜNE" is the Greens, "Die Linke" means The Left, "Sonstige" is others. If you click on the pollsters' name, you can compare the numbers in previous polls.

Note, pollsters have party allegations too, for example, Allensbach is close to the CDU, so is Emnid to some extent, while Forsa is close to the SPD.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 02:51:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree that you can't simply add the popularities of the WASG and the PDS, because the WASG previously polled very low.  If you look at the numbers right now, with the Left Party at 12% national and 31% in the East, they'll have to have about 8% in the West.  I find that number quite high, considering that it's as high as the Greens and the FDP are currently polling and they are quite established by now.

As to the numbers in the East, I think they are inflated because of current events (all the talk about the Left Party in the media) and because the other parties have not started their campaigns which will likely feature successful attacks against the new party.

But you're right, disillusioned SPD-voters are the target for the new Left Party, they're the reason for its existance after all.

by hesk on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 03:13:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There was another article yesterday, I think Soj linked to it in his pdb: "The Left Party Puts the Cat among The Pigeons."

Does this Left Party have any kind of serious program for dealing with unemployment and slow growth?

by TGeraghty on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 05:09:52 PM EST
Raise taxes on the rich, bash non-whites. Lafontaine also wants a retroactive referendum on EU enlargement.  He used to be a decent left-wing socialist. Now he's a populist playing for both extremes.  In state governments I have not noticed anything noteworthy from the PDS.

Minus the snark:
Roll back the SPD government reforms of unemployment and labour law, create a massive employment program, raise taxes on the rich.
For a synopsis of the party positions on various issues see
DIe Positionen der Parteien

by MarekNYC on Wed Jul 20th, 2005 at 07:00:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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