Fringe Power German Left Party a Would-Be Kingmaker
Social Democratic candidate Peer Steinbrück could win Sunday's election, but he would have to partner with the Left Party in order to prevail. The leftists continue to be surprisingly strong, but their Communist roots make them an unpalatable partner.
As surprising as it might sound, there is a simple tactic that Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) could adopt for an excellent chance at toppling Chancellor Angela Merkel from her perch. Instead of pinning their (seemingly unrealistic) hopes on a center-left partnership with the ailing Greens, all the SPD would have to do is open itself to the left. A three-party alliance that included the Left Party would give the center right a run for its money.
Such an observation, of course, is hardly revolutionary. It is one the Left Party itself has been shouting from the rooftops for years. "Including us would mean the end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship," party co-head Bernd Riexinger said on Monday. "The SPD's exclusion-itis is Merkel's guarantee, her life insurance."
But leading Social Democrats have refused to consider the idea. And this despite the fact that the Left Party continues to earn surprisingly consistent support for a party that was supposed to fade as its already aged membership got older. In 2009, the average age of Left Party supporters was 62, four years older than for any other party. This year, at 60, the party's average age still remains higher than the others.
There are, of course, a handful of reasons why the SPD keeps the Left Party at arm's length. Situated at the far left of Germany's already left-leaning political spectrum, a significant chunk of Die Linke, as they are known in German, was born out of the remnants of the East German Communist party, leading mainstream politicians and pundits to view them with disdain.
The western German half of the party, meanwhile, is a collection of Champagne socialists, new-age communists and, more significantly, former SPD voters who jettisoned the party when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through the package of labor market and welfare reforms known as Agenda 2010. Former SPD party boss Oskar Lafontaine departed as well in 2005 in an acrimonious divorce -- and took over the helm of the Left Party, adding to the antagonism.
Since then, flirting with the Left Party has proven dangerous for the SPD. Whereas SPD-Left Party coalitions have governed with little fuss in states belonging to former East Germany and in the city-state of Berlin, in western states, the mere suggestion that the SPD might be willing to work together with the Left, however loosely, has been toxic.
In statements made back in July, Social Democratic candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück made clear his rejection of the Left Party. "The Left Party isn't reliable when it comes to foreign policy, Europe and (Germany's) alliances," he said in an interview with the daily Die Welt. "Their economic and finance policies follow the motto: Make a wish." He said the party was not fit for government. It is a sentiment he has often repeated since then.
But a large share of the German electorate would beg to differ. Recent polls indicate that support for the party is at 10 percent, the highest it has been in the last 12 months and within range of the 11.9 percent it received in the last general election in 2009. Whereas most of the other parties have experienced wild fluctuations in support, the Left Party has remained largely steady.
Different East-West Voting Patterns
To be sure, the party has stumbled recently over the five percent hurdle in several state elections in western Germany -- most recently last Sunday in Bavaria, where it received but 2.1 percent of the vote. It also continues to suffer from an ongoing power struggle between its co-leaders, Sahra Wagenknecht and Gregor Gysi -- one which mirrors the party's own east-west split.
But limited media coverage has shielded the party from the kind of meltdown experienced by the Pirate Party under similar circumstances. And its traditional strength in the east has shown no signs of eroding. In all five eastern German states, the party enjoys support ranging between 14 percent in Berlin and Saxony to 22 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, where the party is stronger than the SPD.
Oskar Niedermayer, a leading political pundit in Germany, noted in an interview last Saturday that much of the Left Party's success comes out of the different voting patterns in the eastern and western halves of the country that are still present almost 25 years after reunification. "Despite having spread out across all of Germany, the Left Party has still been able to act as a credible ambassador for the interests of eastern German citizens," Niedermayer told news agency DPA.
The party's focus on economic inequality has also helped it maintain support in recent years. It has campaigned heavily this election season on the establishment of a universal minimum wage of 10 per hour and a minimum pension of 1,050 per month, both of which sound good but would be extremely difficult to pay for. The party also supports jacking up taxes on the wealthy, something it calls the "millionaire tax," though the additional revenue would likely not be enough to pay for the party's other proposals, say analysts. Still, with all mainstream parties having thus far refused to cooperate with them, the Left Party's ability to compromise and forge policy from a position of responsibility has never been tested on the national level.
Lately, though, another aspect of the party's platform has proven attractive. The Left is radically pacifist, opposed to any German involvement in overseas crises and demands that Berlin withdraw from NATO and the alliance be dissolved. With concern over the possibility of a Western intervention in Syria, it is a message that many Germans find reassuring.
"Support for the Left Party is partially attributable to its categorical rejection of any foreign adventures," says Olaf Böhnke, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "I can imagine that many of their new supporters think that the Left Party is the only party in Germany that is electable when it comes to foreign policy."
In addition to consistent support for the Left Party, current polls also reveal that, taken together, Germany's left and center-left parties are equal in strength to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in combination with her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats. Each camp is currently polling at around 45 percent.
But without the Left Party, Steinbrück has no chance. And that is not likely to change.