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|For Germany's Former Communists, a Stunning Resurgence
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 16, 2008
BERLIN -- Nineteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old East German Communist Party is making a comeback.
Known these days simply as the Left, the ex-communists have broadened their appeal by playing to Germans' anxieties about globalization, wealth distribution and welfare cuts. After scraping along for years, the Left now draws the support of one in seven Germans, some polls show -- making it the third most popular party in the country and a potential kingmaker in next year's federal election.
The Left's rebound has stunned Germany's mainstream political parties, which had written off the ex-communists as a relic of the Cold War and long treated them as untouchable extremists. Instead, the Left has upended Germany's once stable political system, increasing the odds that it could come to power in a coalition government.
"After reunification, many pollsters predicted they would fade away," said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa research institute, a leading German pollster. "I've never been more uncertain about the future of German politics and the parties than I am now."
Most supporters of the Left live in economically struggling eastern Germany, where nostalgia remains strong for the years of communist rule. In the past several weeks, however, the party has won seats for the first time in regional parliaments in the western states of Hesse and Lower Saxony, as well as the city of Hamburg.
Its unexpected strength has led to gridlock in Hesse -- home of the nation's business capital, Frankfurt -- because no other political party has been able to scrape together a majority coalition without the resurgent Left. It's a scenario that analysts said could be repeated in September 2009, when national elections are likely to be held and Chancellor Angela Merkel's job will be up for grabs.
For now, the mood is giddy in the Left's party headquarters in eastern Berlin, located in the same building that housed the German Communist Party until 1933, when the Nazis came to power.
After years of ridicule, the Left's leaders are being taken seriously as a political force. But even they aren't sure how far they can go or whether their current success is a flash in the pan.
"The ultimate outcome is still a question mark," acknowledged Dietmar Bartsch, the Left party's general secretary and a member of Parliament. "We've had very strong success in the most recent elections. But the question is how long that will continue."
Since 2005, Germany has been ruled by what people here call a "grand coalition," a partnering of the two biggest parties: the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. The arrangement was forced after the Left scored 9 percent of the vote and made it impossible for either of the big parties to form their usual ruling partnerships.
The coalition has proved unwieldy, forcing both sides to water down their agendas as they struggle to share power. The prime beneficiary has been the Left, which has stepped into the void as the country's leading opposition group. "The grand coalition has been a good thing for our party's development," Bartsch said.
The biggest loser has been the Social Democrats, whose approval ratings have plummeted. The party has historically drawn its strength from labor unions and other groups supportive of a welfare state. But defections to the Left have accelerated since Gerhard Schroeder, the last Social Democratic chancellor, approved a series of cuts in jobless and pension benefits starting in 2003.
"The Social Democrats are performing very badly at the moment," said Gero Neugebauer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University. "The public mood in Germany is bad. People believe they will not benefit from globalization, but will suffer instead. They think they'll lose their jobs," he added, even though the number of unemployed Germans has shrunk by more than one-fifth since 2005.
Although the Social Democrats have pledged never to form an alliance with the Left on the national level -- a reflection of how the communist label still repels most Germans, especially in the western part of the country -- analysts aren't convinced.
"In the long run, it's inevitable for the Social Democrats to ally themselves with the Left," Neugebauer said. "They can't avoid it."
The Left calls for a full restoration of welfare benefits that have been cut in recent years, a shorter workweek, a minimum national wage and a "wealth tax" on the personal assets of rich people. The party calls itself an alternative to "unbridled capitalism" and doesn't apologize for its communist past, though it does condemn the Stalin years as "a criminal abuse of socialism," according to a platform adopted by Left leaders last year.
On foreign policy, the Left calls for closer ties with Cuba and Venezuela and has harsh words for the "imperialist" United States.
Its critics warn that if it came to power, the Left would soak the rich with higher taxes and withdraw Germany's military from international commitments, including peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Africa.
Andreas Schockenhoff, a deputy parliamentary leader for the Christian Democrats, accused the Left of having no real plan for governing. He said Germany's other parties have a responsibility to treat the Left as an outcast, the same way they shun neo-Nazi groups that occasionally win seats in state legislatures.
"They are playing a role of obstruction and protestation," Schockenhoff said of the Left in an interview. "It is a populist approach, very demagogic. They want to blame any political change in our system on globalization and are outside the democratic consensus that we had until now."
Also dogging the Left are persistent allegations and evidence that some of its leaders were friendly with the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police.
The suspicions arose again last month when a freshly elected Left member of Parliament in the state of Lower Saxony told a television station that the Stasi had done a good job guarding against "reactionary forces." The legislator, Christel Wegner, also made the dubious claim that the Berlin Wall was meant to keep Westerners out of East Germany, instead of vice versa. She was forced to quit a few days later.
Bartsch, the party's general secretary, said the Left needed to lay such doubts to rest.
"We have to be a serious party," he said. "We are committed to acting in a democratic way. For us, change in society is only possible through democracy -- no ifs, ands or buts."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.