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Germany's Die Linke: ‘We have the wind of history in our sails’

By Duroyan Fertl

May 30, 2008 -- After a year of stellar successes, almost 600 delegates from Germany’s new left-wing party, Die Linke, came together for the party’s first ever congress, held in the east German city of Cottbus on May 25 and 26. Former East German communist Lothar Bisky and former Social Democratic Party (SPD) national president Oscar Lafontaine, once dubbed by the media as “Europe’s most dangerous man”, were re-elected as co-chairs of the party, and a social justice-oriented platform was adopted for the coming period, which includes state elections in Bavaria this September and federal elections next year.

Die Linke was officially formed in 2007 as a fusion between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS — the successor to the former East German ruling party) and a collection of militants, unionists and socialists from the west organised as the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG). Die Linke now has almost 80,000 members.

Anti-neoliberal revolt

The PDS, still popular in the east, had failed to win electoral support in the west. However, the anti-social “Hartz IV” laws of the SPD government of Gerhard Schroder led to a grass-roots rebellion against the SPD in the west. Thousands of militant unionists and community activists revolted against Schroder’s neoliberal policies, forming the WASG. They were joined by Lafontaine and a left-wing split from the SPD in the lead up to the 2005 federal elections.

After the PDS-WASG joint ticket out-polled the Greens in these elections — winning 54 seats — the two groups fused into Die Linke. Having won representation in 10 out of 16 state parliaments, it is now Germany’s third largest party, after the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left SPD. While it is polling at around 14% nationally, in Saarland, Lafontaine’s home state, Die Linke has reached 29%, almost double the support for the SPD.

Die Linke’s success can be attributed in part to the failure of Germany — with Europe’s strongest economy — to translate economic gains into social benefits. While the neoliberal policies of the CDU/SPD “grand-coalition” government have cut unemployment, they have done so by increasing the working poor — forcing many people into extremely low-paying jobs.

According to a government report, up to 18% of Germans were living in poverty in 2005, and a quarter of the population earns less than US$24,000 per year. The country has also been rocked by a series of tax avoidance scandals, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen drastically.

While this travesty continues, Die Linke has begun to set the political agenda. Their policies, such as introducing a minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, and paid maternity leave — once considered taboo among the other parties — have suddenly re-appeared on the mainstream national agenda in an attempt to neutralise Die Linke’s popular appeal.

As a result, Lafontaine is now referred to by many as “Germany’s secret chancellor”.

At the Cottbus conference, Lafontaine gave an electrifying speech laden with references to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and the Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg. He slammed the “perversity of financial market-driven capitalism” for causing unemployment and poverty in the name of profit, and argued that fighting the influence of markets is “the central question of our times”.

In April, Lafontaine also proposed including sections from the Communist Manifesto in Die Linke’s program. Conference delegates also called for greater public expenditure on health, education and environmental repair, a ban on layoffs by profitable firms and higher property, corporate and inheritance taxes.

Die Linke remains the only German party opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and Lafontaine — who has called US President George Bush a terrorist and praised Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez — railed against NATO at the conference, calling it a US-led machine that violates human rights around the world.

Die Linke is also the only German party to oppose the new European Union constitution, on the grounds that it is entirely pro-business, and was the sole opposition in the Bundestag (the national parliament) to a recent proposal to increase politicians’ salaries.

‘Extremists’

The rise of Die Linke has lit a fire under big business, which is worried about a left-turn in Germany, and the German media has led an ongoing attack on the party. The security services have taken part in the onslaught — a recent security report decried “extremist” elements within Die Linke.

While these attacks have failed to dampen support for Die Linke, the party has vulnerabilities. Where it has entered coalition government with the SPD, in eastern states like Berlin, Die Linke has joined in the implementation of neoliberal policies, causing a revolt by local members.

While in the west, the SPD has refused to deal with Die Linke, the left-wing party remains open to coalitions with the SPD. There is a danger that Die Linke might be drawn into fruitless governing coalitions unless the party adopts a set of clear policies in relation to the question.

There is a potential fault line in Die Linke between a more moderate wing and a radical wing that includes Lafontaine, many unionists and a number of smaller, explicitly socialist platforms. The direction Die Linke takes will be determined in the struggle to forge a party with a platform that seems to genuinely put people before profits, both in the streets and in coming elections.

Until then, as Lafontaine argued in Cottbus – “the wind of history is in our sails”.

From International News, Green Left Weekly issue #753 4 June 2008.

* * *

Report by Die Linke on the first congress of the party, 23-25 May 2008 in Cottbus

The first congress of the new party DIE LINKE took place in the town of Cottbus. Far in the
East of Germany in the land of Brandenburg, this town’s name meant originally “pretty
cottages”. On the fairground of Cottbus DIE LINKE celebrated its first birthday. About one
year ago DIE LINKE was founded in Berlin.

553 delegates (51,4% female) arrived to the congress. The majority of the delegates had been
elected by subdivisions of the party, as district organisations. Additionally, 42 delegates were
elected by federal alliances and 20 by the youth organisation. Furthermore, more journalists
than ever before and many guests attended the congress.

Frank Szymanski, mayor (SPD) of Cottbus warmly welcomed the congress. Afterwards
Thomas Nord, the chairman of DIE LINKE in Brandenburg was addressing the delegates.
Speeches were held by the two chairpersons Lothar Bisky and Oskar Lafontaine.
Lothar Bisky emphasized the role of DIE LINKE in the European Left. He said that there is only
a chance to change the European Union in cooperation with each other and in solidarity. The
new party DIE LINKE was founded to find new ways and he warned not to become haughty.
Oskar Lafontaine stressed the necessity to combine freedom and social justice. He listed the
demands of DIE LINKE, like minimum wages, pensions that prevent old-age poverty, the
withdrawal of the Bundeswehr (German troops) out of Afghanistan and to abolish Hartz IV.
Gabriele Zimmer reported on the work of the GUE/NGL, whereas Gregor Gysi held the closing
speech. He urged for stronger company and talked about alleged differences between East
and West. The speeches will be translated into English and are available soon.

The adopted lead motion deals with the current political situation in Germany and beyond.
After a discussion of various amendments and the adoption of some of them, the vast
majority of the delegates voted in favour of this motion (also available soon).
Moreover, the congress enacted a campaign which encounters a subject with high topicality:
the retirement-pensions, which are not assured anymore and decline continuously. Therefore,
DIE LINKE claims that fair wages are pre-condition for fair pensions. Only a coherent and
transparent pension formula can avoid old-age poverty.

Central were also the upcoming elections. The “super”- election year 2009 has already
casted a cloud over this congress. There will be not only the election of the European
Parliament and the Bundestag (National Parliament) but also in Thueringen, Saarland,
Sachsen and Brandenburg. DIE LINKE has good chances to achieve good results, and the
well-known politicians and top-candidates Oskar Lafontaine (Saarland), Kerstin Kaiser
(Brandenburg) and Bodo Ramelow (Thueringen) might get the chance to become prime
minister in their particular federal state.

But first the election in Bavaria will be held this year. The electoral law is especially malicious
in Bavaria and DIE LINKE is campaigning hard to move into the next western Landtag in
September. In a symbolic act, a part of the successful election-campaign-team from Lower
Saxony, where DIE LINKE had won 7,1% of the votes in February, handed over the necessary
tools to the comrades from Bavaria.

Much time was spend on party-elections: the Chairpersons, the Treasurer, the Party
Secretary, the Deputy Party Chairs, the members of the board, the Arbitration Committee and
the Auditing Committee. The congress was therefore coined by elections.
Lothar Bisky and Oskar Lafontaine both were confirmed in their position as chairpersons. The
same counts for Dietmar Bartsch, the Party Secretary and Karl Holluba, Treasuerer of the
party. As Deputy- chairpersons were elected: Katja Kipping, Halina Wawzyniak, Ulrike Zerhau
and Klaus Ernst. Moreover, 29 members of the board were re-elected, 7 have not been in the
board before. More information is available here:

http://die-linke.de/partei/organe/parteitage/1_parteitag/wahlen/wahl_des_parteivorstandes/

For time reason the congress was not able to finish the debate on all forwarded motions on
national and international development. It was decided to forward these motions for further
consultation to the newly elected Executive Board as well as to the Federal Committee of DIE
LINKE.

A controversial debate was lead about a motion concerning family-policy. The motion, which
was adopted by a big majority, calls for an “emancipatory family policy”. DIE LINKE is
campaigning for a massive extension of non-contributory child-care places. Children can learn
best when they are together with other children. DIE LINKE denies conceptions that lay a
focus on domestic upbringing for pre-school age children. Poverty is the biggest risk for the
development of a child; therefore DIE LINKE calls for more social security. To enable parents
to spend more time with their family, DIE LINKE demands also a cutback of working-hours.
Already last year, the party-congress had been laying the first cornerstone for a “Kita-
Campaign” (day-care-centre-campaign). Especially for children under 3 years, there are not
enough day-care-centre places.

Adopted was also the motion of the Executive Board on electing a Statute- Commission by
the Federal Committee, which has to prepare the discussion of forwarded motions concerning
organisational and institutional aspects of development of our party.

More information will be available soon on our homepage: http://die-linke.de/politik/international/english_pages/

 

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