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A new German left emerges

By Helmut Ettinger

In 2005 the German political scene was in turmoil. After another lost Länder [state] election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous federal state and for more than 40 years a stronghold of the Social Democrats (SPD), Gerhard Schroeder, chancellor of the ``red-green'' federal government, announced early national elections for September 2005. This took all political forces by surprise. The parties started hectic activities to prepare for the unexpected campaign.
In fact, North Rhine-Westphalia was only the pretext for Schroeder's step. Earlier, his party had lost elections at the regional and municipal levels on 16 other occasions. This showed the enormous loss of confidence the government of Social Democrats and Greens had suffered as a result of its neo-liberal economic and social policies, its brutal dismantling of the welfare state, culminating in the thoroughly antisocial Hartz iv law [cutting unemployment benefits].
The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was the only party in the Bundestag which opposed the social and economic reforms called ``Hartz laws'' (named after the head of the governmental commission that worked out the agenda) from the very beginning. Besides voting against the laws in parliament, the PDS was involved in a wide protest movement, unfolding in the east and west of the country. Resistance to the government course led to the founding of a broad alliance of left forces -- disappointed left-wing Social Democrats, trade-unionists, ATTAC and other movement activists, former PDS members, communists, Trotskyists etc. -- calling itself Election Alternative for Employment and Social Justice (WASG). This movement soon started transforming itself into a political party with the aim of taking part in national elections, thereby changing the situation in which, aside from two directly elected pds deputies, there was no party in the Bundestag in principled opposition to the neo-liberal politics of the government. The question of this organisation's relationship to the PDS was an acute one from its founding.
When leading figures of the two formations first established contact, they decided to examine the intersections of their positions in various fields, to sound out the chances of their coming together over a longer time -- at least until the original election date of September 2006. Suddenly, things changed. All political parties came under enormous pressure to decide about alliances and partnerships in an extremely short time. After Schroeer's surprise announcement, the wasg gave a signal that it could consider cooperation with the pds in these elections and afterwards. Besides, Oskar Lafontaine, who had stepped down as vice-chancellor in 1999, now left the SPD, whose chairperson he had been for several years in the 1990s, in a protest against Schroeder's neo-liberal policies. He announced his readiness to serve as a candidate of the new left alliance, if it came into being. Former pds chairperson Gregor Gysi also declared his return to politics and was presented as the frontrunner of the pds in the elections.
Thus, unexpectedly, the chance had arisen to form a broader coalition of left forces for these elections, which could quite surely receive considerably more that the necessary 5 per cent of the vote to enter the Bundestag. This news found considerable resonance with the public, other political parties and the media. Many spoke of a historic opportunity to overcome the fragmentation of the left in Germany. The spd and the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/SCU) were particularly upset, as a continuation of the government's course, which could be expected from the CDU/SCU in an even sharper form if it won the election as predicted, promised further resistance from the people affected and their organisations. Suddenly, people disappointed and frustrated by the neo-liberal course of the Social Democratic/Green government and the lack of choice between the mainstream parties saw the chance to vote a strong left opposition into parliament.
Accompanied by enormous, sometimes euphoric, expectations by parts of the public and the left themselves, delegations of the pds and wasg started negotiations on the possibilities of rapprochement and cooperation. For the elections, complicated questions had to be resolved: German election law does not allow election blocs like Olive Tree in Italy. Only single parties can participate. But a merger of the two organisations into one party was impossible in so short time. All the more so, as the wasg had just started its own party-building process. Both organisations had to avoid the risk of being excluded from the elections through their cooperation being found in violation of the election law. And it had to be understood that the parties were different, although they had many common positions -- in particular in economic and social policies.
After broad consultations with jurists and political scientists and after thorough and detailed negotiations, the two delegations, led by their chairpersons, agreed on a cooperation agreement under the headline: ``There are alternatives! For employment, justice, peace and democracy! Against the neo-liberal spirit of times!''

Its main points were:

  • The PDS and WASG agreed to work in the next two years on a new unified project of the German left.

  • In the coming elections, the PDS and WASG would not oppose each other.

  • The PDS offered to open its election lists to WASG members. To underline the new character of the project, the PDS envisaged changing its name.

Thus a considerable part of the German left had made the first step on a new path. As they were breaking new ground, there were big chances, but also no small risks. They agreed that it would be important not to deny the results of previous years' struggles and the developed identities of the partners, and to find ways to compromise on issues where there were differing positions.

II

An extraordinary session of the PDS Ninth Congress, taking place on July 17, 2005, in Berlin, decided by a vote of 74.6 per cent of the elected delegates (more than 90 per cent of the delegates present) to change the name of the party to Left Party (short form: ``the Left''). Appending the acronym ``PDS'' was declared permissible, if so decided by the party organisations of the individual federal states. The consent of two-thirds of the elected delegates, necessary for a change of the party statutes, was considerably surpassed.
In his speech at the congress, pds chairperson Lothar Bisky stressed: ``The proposal to change the party's name means in its core: The Party of Democratic Socialism ventures on a second course of action!''

He gave three reasons:
1. The grand coalition for dismantling democracy and the welfare state, the advocates of unrestrained competition and militarisation, must be opposed by a strong left force presenting modern social and ecological alternatives.
2. The pds will not participate in further splitting the German left .
3. The pds itself needs new impulses to have a lasting chance in the German political system. ``We have to reverse the trend of declining membership; we need to anchor the party in all parts of the country; we need a stable and influential group in the Bundestag.''

Changing the party's name was not an easy decision for the PDS membership, especially for those who had started the party fifteen years earlier. For them, coming out of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the ruling party of the vanished German Democratic Republic, this name had become a symbol of deep-going political, ideological and organisational reform, of a critical view of their history, but also of successful resistance to the efforts of several German governments to do away with this strong organisation of the left. But given the still widespread aversion to the pds in the west of Germany, the wasg had requested leaving the decision on the name of the candidate lists to the Länder party organisations. This now became possible. Länder conferences took corresponding decisions. For instance, the organisation in the federal state of Saxony, in eastern Germany, started into the election campaign as ``The Left Party.PDS Saxony''. The organisation of Saarland, in western Germany, decided on ``The Left Party of Saarland''.
The congress's decision paved the way for giving members of the wasg as well as other individuals of the left the option of running as candidates on the Left Party.PDS -- open lists in the approaching national elections. The eldest delegate of the congress, 91-year-old Hans Lauter, aptly quoted Marx: ``One step of real movement is more important than a dozen good programs.''
In a party referendum, 81.6 % of the wasg members approved this decision.

III

On September18, 2005, the early national elections took place. They had been called by the federal president on the initiative of Chancellor Schroeder one year before the term of the red-green government ended. Confronted with a dramatic fall in popularity because of his neo-liberal economic and social policies, the chancellor took what he saw as the last chance to receive a mandate to stay in power. The spd and Greens made their “reform” of the German economic and social systems the focal point of their campaign strategy, presenting it as the only alternative. They promised their parties and the voters a continuation of this course. The CDU/SCU and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) answered with even more neo-liberal economic and tax policies.
Schroeder's initiative was a surprise attack on his political opponents, intended to prevent them, through an extremely short campaign, from unfolding alternative programs. That was especially aimed at the two formations of the left, the Left Party.pds and the wasg. But within a mere three months the two organisations managed to organise their cooperation to avoid taking from each other the chance to overcome the five per cent barrier and enter parliament.
The CDU/SCU and the fdp fought a confrontational campaign, attacking all steps of the red-green government, carried out partly with their cooperation. Frightened by the large resonance the actions of the left found with the public, the spd and Greens themselves adopted a left-wing rhetoric, promising minor corrections of their policies, attacking the plans of their bourgeois opponents to sharpen the antisocial ``reforms'' begun by them. Sometimes the campaign looked like a fight between a virtual red-green opposition and a virtual conservative-liberal government, leaving the public more and more confused. When the campaign started, most opinion polls found the CDU/SCU near an absolute majority, the SPD under 30 per cent and the Left Party at about 4 per cent. The conservative-liberal camp was regarded by most observers as the likely winner.
The results of the elections belied the forecasts of virtually all institutes and media. Unexpectedly, the losers were the two big parties. The red-green government was voted out, but their conservative-liberal rivals were not voted in. Thus the voters clearly gave a stop sign to the neo-liberal, antisocial politics of Chancellor Schroeder as well as to his conservative rival Angela Merkel, who explicitly wanted to carry them on in a sharpened version. The smaller parties either stabilised or considerably strengthened their positions. The turnout, predicted by the polls to be much higher than in 2002, was 77.7 per cent, 1.4 per cent lower than three years earlier.
The results were met with open disappointment by the big business associations and by right-wing governments abroad, who had hoped for a thorough change of government in Germany.
Although the cdu/csu finished as the strongest party, it missed its aim of forming a right-wing coalition with the fdp. Its result of 35.2 per cent and 225 seats (out of a total 613) is the third lowest in the history of the party -- a further drop after the lost election of 2002 of 3.3 per cent of the vote and 23 seats. The dramatic fall within four months from nearly 50 per cent in the polls to this result is mainly seen as the responsibility of chancellor candidate Angela Merkel, who was no match for Schroeder as an orator and media star, and who is also blamed for political mistakes. Some of her steps -- an announced vat increase as well as the nomination of an economics professor, known for defending a flat tax of 25 per cent, as future finance minister -- confirmed the fears of potential voters of even more reckless economic and social policies under her government.
Disparaging remarks of CSU leaders, including Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, about east Germans cost the party further votes in that region. But these outbursts could not prevent Stoiber's CSU from falling to a historic low in his native Bavaria. It got only 49.3 per cent, losing more than 9 per cent compared to 2002.
The spd received one of the worst results in its history. It has been further weakened in comparison with the 2002 elections, which it won narrowly. Now with 34.3 per cent of the vote and 222 seats, it came in second with a loss of 4.2 per cent and 29 seats. The red-green coalition missed by a long way its declared aim to renew its governing majority. Nevertheless, in the final phase of the campaign, the spd managed to make up 10 per cent. In the end, the spd lost voters mainly to the Left Party and to non-voters. Through an intense campaign with reckless left demagogy, Schroeder managed to come close to his conservative rivals' poor result, but could not overtake them.
The FDP was among the winners of the vote. It received 9.8 per cent and 61 seats, an increase of 2.4 per cent and 14 mandates, making it the third party in the new Bundestag. This party, which went into the elections as a coalition partner of cdu/csu, nevertheless spoke out against Merkel's plan of a 2 per cent vat increase. Right-wing voters opposed to this step gave the fdp in big numbers their second (party) vote* to strengthen its position in the coalition, thus weakening the cdu. The FDP excluded taking part in a so-called traffic light coalition with the SPD and Greens.
Through a skilful campaign, the Green Party avoided being punished as much as the spd for the politics of the red-green government. With 8.1 per cent and 51 mandates, it is now the smallest party in parliament, having lost 0.5 per cent and 4 seats. Some ecological achievements (planned closures of nuclear energy plants, consumer protection measures) as well as foreign policy steps spoke in their favour in the eyes of their loyal voters. As well, the socio-cultural clientele of the Greens have not been so badly hit by the government's social policies yet.
The Left Party.pds was the winner of these early elections. Under difficult conditions, with a new partner, opposed by all the other parties and large parts of the media, it reached its main goal of entering parliament with its own group. The party more than doubled its result of 4 per cent in 2002. The 8.7 per cent of the vote and 54 seats it received were an increase of 4.7 per cent and 52 seats. The best news is that the cooperation with the wasg worked fully, bringing about a result of a new quality, going far beyond the sum of the two organisations’ expected individual scores. Highly important was the overcoming of the 5 per cent hurdle in most of the country, and in six of the ten Länder of western Germany. In the western Länder the party scored altogether 4.9 per cent of the vote. Top results were achieved in the Saarland (Oskar Lafontaine's homeland) with 18.5 per cent, Bremen with 8.3 per cent and Hamburg with 6.3 per cent. In the east the Left Party.pds received 25.4 per cent. Even in the Länder with government participation, highly disputed among its followers, the Left Party.pds got large increases: in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania 7.3 per cent (23.7 per cent altogether) and in Berlin 5 per cent (16.4 per cent altogether). The two lone pds deputies in 2002-2005, Petra Pau and Gesine Lötzsch, won their constituencies in Berlin again. The third direct mandate was taken by Gregor Gysi, also in Berlin. Thirty deputies were elected in the east, 24 in the west.
This election changed political life in Germany. For the first time since the 1950s, there is a nationwide political force to the left of the spd. But the Left Party.pds did not reach its goal of becoming the third force in Bundestag and the strongest force in the east of the country, which seemed possible after the first polls. Obviously, these expressed less the hard realities than the hopes of the people. As the polls showed, many disappointed spd voters were taken in by Schroeder's left demagogy in the last phase of the campaign.
The new parliamentary group elected Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine as their co-chairs.
After long bickering among the two main political camps, Germany now has a grand coalition government of the CDU/SCU and the SPD. The good result of the Left Party.pds helped to prevent a right-wing conservative-liberal coalition from coming to power, which had planned to drive the neo-liberal “reforms” in all fields full speed ahead. But the grand coalition under the first German woman chancellor, Angela Merkel, the East German-born chairperson of the cdu/csu, does not promise politics in the interests of the working people either. During its first months, it has shown its true face: rapprochement with the us and a tougher course towards Iran in foreign policy, plans for further cuts in the already heavily reduced unemployment benefits and for raising the pension age from 65 to 67 years.
The group of the Left Party.pds in the Bundestag will continue fighting the dismantling of the welfare state, the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, the sending of German troops into military action abroad. Being the only group whose program includes many demands of trade unions and social and alternative globalisation movements, it will give the resistance to neo-liberalism and militarisation of foreign policy a strong voice in parliament, thus increasing its effect. It will be supported by the actions of the movements, which are expected to develop and grow, given the announced plans of all the other Bundestag parties.
Some of its concrete projects to be realised in form of parliamentary initiatives, proposals and motions, are:

  • abolition of the Hartz iv law, discriminating against the unemployed;

  • withdrawal of German troops from military missions abroad and of us nuclear weapons from German soil;

  • introduction of a minimum wage;

  • strengthening of civil society structures through more direct democracy;

  • elimination of child poverty, which is growing from the Hartz laws' effects;

  • a future-oriented investment program as a way to equalise living conditions in all regions of the country, east and west;

  • a more just taxation system;

  • equal access to and higher quality of education;

  • resistance to the European Union services directive.

Iv

The success of the combined list in the elections and the first activities of the new parliamentary group have greatly boosted the drive for merging the two organisations into a new party. In the eyes of the public, even of a part of the media, the new formation is already a reality.
On December 10-11, 2005, the third session of the Ninth Congress of the Left Party.pds took place in Dresden. It adopted a further cooperation agreement negotiated with the wasg leadership. Its main points are:

  • The Left Party.pds, viewing itself as the party striving for a democratic socialist society in Germany, and the wasg, aiming at social justice and a change of society in the spirit of solidarity, have agreed to finalise the merger of the two into one all-German party by June 30, 2007, at the latest.

  • The politics of the new party will combine resistance and protest with participation in governing this society and presenting alternatives going beyond capitalism.

  • Membership in the party shall not be bound to any particular world view, ideology or religion. People holding fascist, right-wing extremist, racist or anti-Semitic views are not accepted.

  • During the party-building process, common political discussions, projects, actions and campaigns will be organised.

Questions to be debated include:

What does it mean to be ``left'' today? How do we understand ``democratic socialism''?

What is our principled view of joining government? What are the practical results and experience to this day?

How do we see the history of ``real socialism'' in the east and the history of the left in the west of Germany?

What is our relationship to other tendencies and groups of the left?

  • A joint steering committee has been installed to direct the merger. It has formed working groups in which the respective positions of the two sides are discussed and decisions prepared. They are dealing with: political aims and strategies; statutes and organisation; judicial and financial questions; international relations.

  • An advisory council of independent persons -- scientists, writers, artists etc. -- is to be convened to counsel the leading bodies, especially when conflicts arise.

  • The Left Party.pds is allowing membership in both organisations to help the merger process.

  • The Left Party.pds and wasg are taking part in the activities of the European Left Party as a member and observer party, respectively.

  • The WASG leading body has decided to propose to the next congress the necessary changes of the party statutes.

In the coming stage more cooperation of the two parties' members in practical political action as well as the smooth organisation of the new parliamentary group's activities will play a major part. Big efforts are also needed in political education, to get a better mutual knowledge of each other's history and politics.
A wave of new members is coming to both parties since the announcement of the merger plans: 3000 to the Left Party.pds and about 7000 to the wasg in 2005. The former now has a membership of 61,000, mainly in the east, the latter of 12,000, mainly in the west.
On February 23, 2006, pds chairperson Lothar Bisky and WASG spokesperson Klaus Ernst presented to the public a 17-page paper of programmatic theses agreed by the working group on political aims and strategies. It is meant as an invitation to the members and sympathisers of the two parties, to independent social scientists, trade unionists and activists of the social movements as well as elected deputies of all levels to take part in a discussion on the future shape of the party of the left. This document shows the common views reached until now, but also the open questions that need further clarification.
The aim is a pluralistic party, bringing together the different outlooks, experiences and biographies of reformed communists, left social democrats, trade unionists, alternative globalisation activists and others of the left, of politically active people from the east and west of the country-- a historic process which may be of interest beyond the borders of Germany.

[Helmut Ettinger is the deputy head of the Left Party.PDS International Department.]

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