No other political party in Germany is put under more pressure to ‘confront its past’ than the Left party, the heir to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled East Germany. But the party has now redefined itself.
Despite 20 years and several name changes, the association between the Left party (or, die Linke) and East Germany’s totalitarian regime remains a hump for any western German to overcome. This psychological obstacle is reflected in Germany’s four other major parties, all of whom express misgivings about a potential coalition – either at either federal or state level – with the Left. With some justification: In a study conducted in 2008, 50 percent of Germans said they would rather not live in Germany if the Left was in the ruling coalition.
To date, the Left party has only helped to form a government in two states: Berlin and Brandenburg, where it became a junior partner to the moderate-left Social Democratic Party. While attempts have been made in western German states to form governments with the Left party – the latest spectacular failure came in Hesse in 2008 – the ball-and-chain of the old German Democratic Republic always seems to put paid to any hope of cooperation.
That its history has made it a pariah is not lost on the party, who have a defense placed prominently on their website: “The Left party learns from history. The aim of left-wing, emancipative politics is always to draw lessons out of the past for the present and the future – from successes as well as failures. This is especially so for the failure of socialism in the 20th century.”
The history of the German left since reunification is a muddle of letters. It mutated from the SED to the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) in 1990, before becoming the Linkspartei.PDS in 2005, and then finally fusing with the western WASG (Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice) in 2007 to form Die Linke. All this can be simplistically viewed as a gradual migration from East Germany to the rest of the country.
With each name-change and each election, the Left became more and more accepted, and extended its influence a little further and deeper into the country. It is now represented in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, and in 2009, it won 76 of 622 seats in the Bundestag (and 11.9 percent of the German vote) a gain of 23 over 2005.
But despite its increasing pan-German popularity, the notion of a coalition with the Left in national government is still considered political poison by the other parties. And the main reason for this is clear: Germans don’t like the thought of cabinet ministers who used to be members of the SED.
With hindsight then, the Left may have made a serious mistake in 1989. When the SED convened to consider its future in December of that year, it had one central question to face – should the old party of dictatorship disband, or should it reform and find a way to adapt to the new Germany?
Urged by new leader Gregor Gysi, the party chose the second option, and so the connection to the GDR was preserved, while the party program was radically changed. But for all the speeches distancing the party from Stalinism and Erich Honecker, and all the exclusions of leading SED figures from the new party, it was always going to be a hard sell.
Still the Left party’s co-chair Gesine Loetzsch insists this was the better option. “You can’t say goodbye, and the following day have a new party,” she told Deutsche Welle. “The people were still there, and if they had founded a new party, everybody would have said, ‘Okay, you’re just from the old party.’ “I think it was more honest to break with the ideas, but not found a new party.”
The PDS spent most of the 1990s searching its soul and trying to define its role in the new Germany. Speaking in 1995, party veteran and later MEP Andre Brie said, “In 1989 I was in favor of a dissolution of the SED, because in my opinion it wasn’t possible to continue the socialist movement with this apparatus. But five years later, I have changed my mind. Parties are cultural entities, and without a certain continuity it would be impossible to maintain a politically effective party.”
Brie’s statement hints at how divided the party was in this period. Though the question of dissolution was settled, the PDS was still split between traditionalists and reformers, between socialists who campaigned for radical Keynesian economic policies, and those that sought alliances with the SPD and the Greens.
And though the PDS was gaining acceptance all the time, it was also hemorrhaging members. It was inevitable that the majority of the SED’s 2.3 million members would hand in their cards pretty soon, but PDS membership declined throughout its entire existence – falling from 285,000 in 1990 to 60,000 in 2006. (Membership has recovered since, and the Left party now boasts over 77,000).
Duty to the Ossis
One issue held the party together in those days – its identification with East Germany, and what it saw as its responsibility to represent former East Germans. For Loetzsch, this solidarity was basic.
“In the 90s the main issue was helping people get into the new society,” she said. “Everything was new. Banks, insurance, jobs, housing, everything. One of the main tasks of the PDS at the time was to help people with real practical life.”
Despite its efforts to appeal to western voters, the Left party has always felt a conflicting urge to remain the party most identified with eastern Germany. “A lot of people in the former East Germany, and we know this from opinion polls, still feel discriminated against,” said Loetzsch. “We still don’t have equal wages or equal pensions, so we feel a special responsibility, and we are very familiar with the people.”
Statistics back this up. The Left party remains the only major party in Germany with more voters in the former East than the former West, and a recent study showed that the Left’s eastern German voters are more likely to come from higher income brackets than their western German voters – suggesting a wider voter base.
New century, new perspective
The PDS may well have lasted longer, and remained a predominantly eastern party, if it had not been for Gerhard Schroeder. The SPD chancellor, whose coalition with the Green party took over Germany in 1998, introduced radical reforms to the welfare state – known collectively as Agenda 2010 – that precipitated a massive crisis in left-wing moderates.
The result was the WASG, a short-lived but important party made up of disgruntled, predominantly western SPD and Green party supporters. In 2005, the newly-formed movement caught its biggest fish, when former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine defected from the SPD to become the party’s leading candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia. Lafontaine’s impact on the Left party can hardly be overstated. A Roman Catholic, working class westerner – and briefly Schroeder’s finance minister – his defection instantly brought a whole new dimension to the party, not to mention a new and bigger media presence.
With the SPD’s popularity damaged by the loss of NRW in a state election in May, Schroeder called an early election in autumn 2005. Following Lafontaine’s proposal, the PDS joined forces with the WASG in that election, with WASG candidates – including Lafontaine – effectively running for the PDS in the West. The PDS changed its name to Die Linkspartei.PDS in July 2005 to represent the new extension.
The effect was momentous: The leftist alliance won 8.7 percent of the national vote and returned 53 representatives to the Bundestag – becoming the fourth largest party. Schroeder was deposed and the SPD relegated to a junior partner in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The SPD had been seriously weakened.
Mainstream in the east, protest party in the west
The Left union was formalized under co-leaders Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky in 2007, a year that also marked the party’s first ascent to power in the western states. In May, it won enough votes to be represented in the Bremen state parliament. A month later, the Die Linkspartei.PDS became simply Die Linke. In the three years since then, the party has entered 13 of the 16 state parliaments, and was barely short of entering the ultimate conservative stronghold, Bavaria, at the last state election.
The Left party has very cannily managed to broaden its appeal in the west while remaining loyal to its base in the east. Recent Left party voter studies show that western Germans vote for the Left in protest at centrist policies on Afghanistan and the banking crisis.
But the question of national government lingers. The distrust that many moderate Germans – and major political parties – have towards the Left seems disproportionate, considering how much time has passed since the SED disappeared, but it is substantial.
Loetzsch, however, is confident that one day the center-left will get over its hang-ups: “It’s only a question of time.”