The World from Berlin: A German Political Giant's 'Grandiose Failure'

After years of growth, Germany's Left Party is in disarray. Weeks of bitter infighting have weakened the far-left party and now its most important figure Oskar Lafontaine has withdrawn his candidacy for its leadership. German commentators say he alone is to blame for the chaos left behind.

Oskar Lafontaine withdrew his candidacy for Left Party chair on Tuesday. Zoom
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Oskar Lafontaine withdrew his candidacy for Left Party chair on Tuesday.

For awhile there, it looked almost as though Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats were bound for extinction. Atrocious poll support of well below 5 percent and a string of painful election defeats had many predicting their imminent demise.

But with the FDP experiencing a sudden and surprising resurrection of late, the political vultures in Germany have shifted their attention to another small niche party, the far-left Left Party. Months of infighting have weakened the party and elections earlier this month in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, resulted in their expulsion from parliament with a mere 2.5 percent of the vote.

On Tuesday, the situation became even worse. Oskar Lafontaine, the party's best-known talking head and most accomplished politician, announced suddenly that he was withdrawing his candidacy for party leadership -- just weeks after throwing his hat in the ring in the first place. Given the extended battle Lafontaine had waged with current party head Klaus Ernst over his potential candidacy -- including an energetic attempt to impose conditions on the party in the event he was chosen as leader -- the news caught the party and the press completely off guard. The Left Party has until early June, when delegates gather to elect a new chair, to pick up the pieces.

Public Bickering

There is little reason to believe that it will, though. A marriage between the remnants of former East Germany's communist party and left-wingers in the west -- the Left Party flew high after it was launched in 2007, barging its way into a number of state parliaments and threatening to become a factor on the national stage as well. But recently the party has fared poorly, with a national political survey released on Wednesday indicating that only 6 percent of Germans would vote for the party were elections to be held this Sunday, the party's worst result since its founding. Public bickering about leadership positions hasn't helped, either.

Particularly problematic, however, is the way in which Lafontaine decided to leave his party in the lurch. Many in Germany are reminded of Lafontaine's dramatic 1999 resignation as finance minister in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's cabinet, and his departure from the position of Social Democrat party chair at the same time. The move resulted in a badly weakened SPD and Lafontaine turned in his membership card a short time later.

It took years for the SPD to recover, and the schadenfreude from the center-left over Lafontaine's sudden change of course on Tuesday has been difficult to ignore. German commentators on Wednesday took the opportunity to deliver a few jabs too.

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Lafontaine is highly intelligent and a gifted speaker. Yet the ability to step back and exercise self-critique -- something the Left Party values -- was never one of his talents. It is easy to polarize with empty polemic critical of Europe. Social-romantic forays into airy dreamland are often rewarded by voters. But those who forego constructive proposals altogether lose their claim to shape policy."

"Lafontaine achieved his greatest successes when fueled by rage, as someone who railed against the commendable reforms pushed through by Schröder's SPD-led coalition; as someone who blasted his former party, against which he waged a vengeful campaign. To be sure, the fusion of leftists from eastern and western Germany was Lafontaine's baby and it was a great success. But this strange project made up of reasonable pragmatists from the east and crazy sectarians from the west is now mired in its deepest crisis. Lafontaine, with his neurotic refusal to compromise, bears the greatest share of the blame. His withdrawal from the leadership of the Left Party is the apex of a grandiose failure."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"It is easy now to empty a bucket of scorn on Oskar Lafontaine's head. Yes, he has failed, stumbling over his own vanity; over his almost megalomaniacal belief that only he ... could save the sinking Left Party."

"Luckily, he was wrong in his belief that a party would subjugate itself to a man who dictatorially stipulates the conditions under which he would be enthroned. Lafontaine's delusion of allowing no serious challenger has little to do with a real election. It is good that the party did not succumb to Lafontaine's extortionate game."

"Yet his self destruction remains tragic nonetheless, even if his decision to withdraw himself from consideration yesterday brought a nonsensical dispute to an end and freed the Left Party. The situation is of course radically different for the professional politician. His stubbornness will result in exactly what he had sought to avoid. The former SPD head, who had the correct response to the perfidious welfare reforms pushed through by the Social Democrats, has unnecessarily destroyed his reputation with this final battle."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The Lafontaine era in the Left Party had earned a dignified ending. But Oskar Lafontaine remains Oskar Lafontaine. With his egomaniacal candidacy for the party chair -- which involved him demanding that all other candidates withdraw -- plunged an already dishevelled Left Party into chaos. Old wounds, both ideological and geographical, were reopened. Things went so far that the orthodox wing and the reform wing hurled vicious insults at each other and many began forecasting a failure of the east-west fusion."

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The fusion of the eastern German leftists and the western German leftists initially resulted in a nationwide power that was stronger than the two groups together. Today, not much remains of that power, and soon it may be nothing at all. A rapid process of self-destruction has been set in motion. The two halves no longer complement each other. Instead, they are devouring one another."

"The Left Party's idea was that of combining two very different histories into a single story of success. In the west, it was the renegades from the SPD, union members and the disgusted. Their desire was to apply pressure on the Social Democrats from the left. In the east, it was the successors to the East German state party, the SED. And their goal was gaining recognition as a meaningful nationwide power. They saw the SPD less as an opponent and more as a possible future coalition partner."

"The Left Party was only able to come into being because these contradictions were ignored. Lafontaine's return to party leadership could have been successful had he been prepared to continue the Left Party's self-delusion for awhile…. But he wanted a resolution. And that is likely what he'll get, just not as he envisioned it."

-- Charles Hawley

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