March 1, 2008 - Elections in Germany: Die Linke Further Challenges the Rules of the Political Game
Hamburg: For the third time in the last few weeks, Die Linke (the Left, as the new party is called) has made an entrance into the Parliament of one of Germany’s western “Länder”. Die Linke (the Left) emerged as the real winner of last Sunday’s parliamentary election in the city-state of Hamburg. For the third time running in a few weeks, Oskar Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky’s party succeeded in winning more than the minimum 5% required in one of Germany’s western Länder. It now has eight seats in the Hamburg Parliament. The new electoral deal disrupts the political scene and looks to jeopardize negotiations toward the setting up of a coalition government to run the Hanseatic city. As in the Land of Hesse where real negotiations over the Land’s future executive have not even started yet, Die Linke’s share of parliamentary seats makes classical coalitions impossible, whether on the right between the CDU’s Christian Democrats and the FDP’s “Liberals” or on the left between the SPD’s Social Democrats and the Greens. Although it came in an easy first last Sunday, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) was by far the greater loser of that election. Not only was its share of the vote down by three points but it also lost the absolute majority it had won in 2004, and it cannot rely on its traditional partner the FDP to supply the missing votes, for the FDP failed to get the minimum 5% required for a party to wint seats in Parliament. Ole von Beust, the incumbent Christian Democrat Bürgermeister (Mayor), made the first move and launched a charm offensive aimed at the Greens with whom he says he is ready to govern. But even though a far from negligible section of the Greens has come out in favour of opportunistic alliances (with either left or right parties as circumstances dictate), it will be difficult to draft a common platform that Grünen members could unanimously approve. The CDU’s leader might also turn to the SPD to form a grand coalition on the model of the ruling coalition in Berlin. But Social Democrats do not seem to be very keen on that option as they are currently struggling to make good the disastrous reflection of this “united front” at the national level on their image and on their credibility with their own voters. Especially so, as increasing social difficulties, a palpable loss in purchasing power, unprecedented and ever rising inequalities and social injustice have become much debated political issues over which the party is being increasingly called to account. There is no question that the climate of opinion has indeed contributed a lot to the success of Die Linke; the new party has been most vocal on these issues, which used to be the SPD’s core issues. The possibility that Die Linke might be called upon to support a regional coalition government without actually joining it, or even to participate in a regional coalition government, began to be the subject of debate even before the election results in Hamburg were known. The question so far had been a taboo subject. Kurt Beck himself, the SPD’s president, hinted for the first time at the possibility that he might negotiate in Hesse for Die Linke’s support without the new party - which results from a merger between the Linkspartei PDS and the Wahlalternative (WASG) - participating in the government. That would be the only way that he could have Andrea Ypsilanti, the SPD’s regional leader, elected Minister-President. Die Linke at once responded favourably to the proposal in order to eliminate Roland Koch, the far-right incumbent Minister-President. Nothing is certain as yet. But dividing lines are obviously shifting and the German press is buzzing with speculation over the possibility of triple alliances (between the SPD, the Grünen and Die Linke or between the CDU, the FDP and the Grünen), which would be the only way out of the political impasse, following the sudden emergence of Die Linke on the scene. The prospect of taking part in government at the regional, or even national level (after the next Bundestag election in September 2009) has come under debate within the new leftist party. The necessity for the party to shoulder governmental responsibility is generally set on a par with the need to stand firm on a number of basic demands like the bringing home of all the troops deployed in Afghanistan or the repeal of the Hartz IV package that left the jobless unprotected and liberalized the job market to an unprecedented degree. The ratification of the Lisbon treaty was another issue that imposed itself in the debate. In the Berlin Land, the only Land where Die Linke governs jointly with the SPD, the social-democrat Bürgermeister Klaus Wowereit would like the Berlin deputies in the Bundesrat (Parliament’s upper chamber) to vote for the treaty. The executive committee of the party’s Berlin branch had come out in favour of the now defunct Giscard constitution in its time and like Member of the European Parliament Sylvia Yvonne Kaufmann, author of a recently published plea for the new text, is said to be in favour of ratification. The prospect raises many protests in a movement where a majority of members opposed the former treaty: “That certainly is the best way to torpedo the party’s credibility”. They ask the Berlin executive committee not to make inconsistent decisions and to turn down Wovereit’s request even if it should jeopardize the future of the SPD-Die Linke coalition. Oskar Lafontaine himself stepped in and voiced his objections, saying that it was precisely the Linke’s responsibility never to depart from the naked truth, for which the party had gained credit, when all other parties kowtowed to free-market zealots. This article first appeared in French in L’Humanité, the French progressive daily, and was translated by Isabelle Metral.