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Party of Democratic Socialism
Die Linke (The Left)

Americans can perhaps best understand the Left, as it is often simply known, as what Bernie Sanders would be if he had been socialized in a Warsaw Pact country. Or as an interest party for people in the formerly Communist East who might somewhat uncharitably be called the losers of German reunification. The Left is anti-capitalist, anti-NATO and pro tax-and-spend, although it is democratic in the small "d" sense. There's no real American major party equivalent. Imagine the most radical of the Sanders supporters taking over the American Communist Party and getting 6 to 10 percent of the vote based mainly on their strength in states like Vermont, Maine, Montana and Idaho.

The communist party that ran East Germany was the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED). Founded in 1946, the SED controlled the government and the electoral process and supervised the omnipresent State Security Service (Staatssicherheitsdienst--Stasi). To be considered for important positions in East German government and society, membership in the party was a requirement.

When the East German public toppled the communist regime, the SED and its extensive organizational structure also came unraveled. Membership fell dramatically; local and regional party groups disbanded. In a desperate attempt to save itself, the SED sought to reconstruct itself for the new democratic climate. It changed its name in February 1990 to the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus--PDS). The old party guard was replaced by moderate leaders, such as the new chairman, Gregor Gysi. The PDS won 11 percent of the vote in eastern Germany in the 1990 all-Germany election, an outcome that entitled the party to seventeen seats in the Bundestag. In the Bundestag, the PDS has advocated communist values and has energetically criticized the Kohl government. The PDS's all-Germany tally reached only 2.4 percent because of a showing in western Germany of 0.3 percent.

The party's electoral base is limited to the east, particularly areas in which substantial numbers of former SED members live. In mid-1995 the PDS had roughly 130,000 members in the east, giving the PDS the largest membership of any party in eastern Germany. The party's strongholds are Saxony, Berlin, and Brandenburg. The party continues to have a tiny following in the west, with 1,200 members. Two main factors account for the success of the PDS in the east: the PDS inherited the infrastructure and local grassroots organization of the SED, and the PDS has come to be seen by many in the east as the only party that represents specifically eastern German interests and that stresses the positive aspects of eastern German life. Over 90 percent of PDS members belonged to the SED, and 66 percent are over the age of sixty. The established parties have largely ostracized the PDS.

The PDS garnered 4.4 percent of the vote in the 1994 national election, an outcome that, as predicted, left the party beneath the 5 percent hurdle. However, the party won parliamentary representation, thanks to a peculariarity of the German electoral law: the fact that the PDS won four districts outright (all in eastern Berlin) entitled it to thirty seats in the Bundestag. Much credit for the strong showing of the PDS in the east has been given to the party's leading figure, the lawyer Gysi, an articulate and charismatic member of parliament.

In October 1994, the PDS won four directly elected seats, to re-enter parliament with a total caucus of 30 seats despite staying below the 5% hurdle for proportional representation. In 1998, the party improved its result slightly to 5.1% of the national vote and 36 deputies.

A high-profile defector from the Social Democrats, Left party leader Oskar Lafontaine has always been a divisive character. In 1985, Lafontaine, the Social Democratic Lord Mayor of Saarbrucken, unexpectedly won the election for Minister-President (governor) of the Saarland. Lafontaine is a very popular figure in a state he led as SPD premier from 1985 to 1998. Lafontaine, as premier of the Saarland, was the Social Democrats' candidate for the chancellorship in 1990, but lost heavily to Mr Kohl, chiefly because he was socool about German unification. He did not, however, lose his ambition to bechancellor, and some think he still hasn't. Nor did he lose his old-fashioned leftist views, which are interventionist, redistributive and, in economics, Keynesian.

Lafontaine, elected SPD chairman November 1995, resigned from his party and government positions in March, 1999. Schroeder succeeded Lafontaine as party chairman. The Wahlalternative Soziale Gerechtigkeit [WASG] was established in late 2004 by western leftists, trade unionists, SPD dissidents, and former PDS members.

Lafontaine left the SPD, after nearly 40 years membership, in May 2005 ahead of the general election. Two weeks of dramatic media speculation followed, until Lafontaine emerged as the leading chancellor candidate in a new coalition of leftists that bound together the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice alliance (WASG) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to East Germany's ruling party, the SED.

Since its inception in 2005, Lafontaine's tactic has been to attract voters disgruntled with centrist politics with bullish sound bites like this. His success with oppositional anti-war, anti-capitalist and occasionally anti-immigrant policies have dealt blows to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), of which he was once chairman and chancellor candidate, by tempting away much of its traditional working class base. But his belligerence has not spared the right either. He openly denounced George Bush and Tony Blair as terrorists, and in political magazine Cicero he said of the Christian Democratic Union, Germany's main center-right party: "They made former Nazis into chancellors and presidents."

By driving the Left party into a state of permanent opposition on a national level, he has won considerable grassroots support, creating an alliance of disenchanted SPD voters in the west and former communist voters in the east. While Lafontaine's uncompromising stance effectively precludes the Left party's assimilation in a coalition to rule Germany, the party has managed to gain a foothold in regional state governments in the former East.

The PDS (composed largely of former East German communists) and the WASG, composed of western leftists, merged in June 2007 to form a party simply known as Die Linke (The Left). The founding party congress in Berlin elected ex-SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine and previous PDS leader Lothar Bisky as the new leadership duo. Lafontaine, who acted as chairman of the Left's Bundestag group together with Gregor Gysi, received 87.9% of the votes, while Bisky received 83.6%. The party's foreign policy is largely shaped by its rigid opposition to foreign military deployments. On domestic policy, the party opposes economic and social reforms, such as Hartz IV, which aim to increase free markets and reduce unemployment benefits. The Left proposes to replace the free market system with a return to socialist principles.

Not only is the Left party tainted in many voters' eyes by its association with communism, but the party also wants to distance Germany from NATO and build closer ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia - a position that scares many people in the political mainstream.

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Page last modified: 26-09-2017 18:50:57 ZULU