Growing Ambitions: Far Left Hope to Make History in State Elections

By and

Germany's far-left Left Party is hoping to make history after Sunday's state elections. First, it wants to establish the first state coalition with the center-left Social Democrats in western Germany. And second, it wants to install the party's first-ever governor. Whatever the party achieves could have repercussions at the national level.

A Left Party election rally with placards demanding better social policies in Thuringia. Zoom
AP

A Left Party election rally with placards demanding better social policies in Thuringia.

Restraint has never been one of Oskar Lafontaine's strengths. The former German finance minister from the western state of Saarland would once greet every bus driver who'd switched allegiance from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to his own far-left Left Party with a gleeful and ostentatious handshake. Now he's making his way through political party events and summer festivals, campaigning intensely against current Saarland Governor Peter Müller and his conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), ridiculing the Green Party and ranting about the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). Only Lafontaine's former party the SPD and its leading candidate Heiko Maas have been spared from the tirade.

This unusually gentle treatment of the SPD is strategic. Saarland is one of the three German states that go to the polls this Sunday and Lafontaine plans to reap a big harvest both there and in the eastern state of Thurinigia. The current governors of both states, Peter Müller und Dieter Althaus respectively, are both members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, and both are in danger of losing their absolute majorities. The SPD, long one of the country's two strongest parties alongside the CDU, has been driven down to popularity ratings in the 20 percent range -- not least by Lafontaine's vengeful campaigning. But now the politician seems to feel the time has come to form alliances among Germany's left-wing parties. This would also get voters gradually used to the idea of the Left Party eventually sharing power at the federal level, something the SPD has so far categorically rejected.

Wooing the SPD

Lafontaine is banking on two first-time events at once -- the first "red-red" coalition (the color is used to represent both the SPD and the Left Party) to be formed in western Germany, and the Left Party governor of a state. Yet the Left Party is running into an unusual problem -- in Thuringia, at least, they could actually grow too strong. The Social Democrats are shying away from the idea of playing junior partner in a red-red coalition. In both states, the party has declared that it will work with the Left Party -- a party formed through the merger of western Germany's leftist WASG party and the eastern Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's Communists -- only if it is assured the governor position. And so the crafty Left Party is looking for solutions the SPD could also find agreeable.

Things seem comparatively simple in Saarland. Nowhere else are the SPD and Left Party more similar than in Germany's smallest state. Here the issues that divide the two parties at the federal level -- the Hartz IV program of reduced social welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed, retirement pensions, military deployment in Afghanistan -- hardly play a role.

And in Saarland, the SPD and Left Party won't be forced to deal with problematic personnel issues. Surveys show the Left Party currently lagging well behind the Social Democrats, meaning SPD candidate Heiko Maas -- a onetime protégée of Lafontaine's -- should be able to keep his campaign promises, confining the Left Party to a role as junior coalition partner.

In order to create as few hurdles as possible for western Germany's first potential red-red cabinet, Lafontaine is consciously choosing ministerial candidates who would also be acceptable to the SPD. Heinz Bierbaum, 62, who has many years of experience with labor unions and is now a professor at Saarland's University of Applied Sciences, could become the state's economics minister. Former Green Party member Barbara Spaniol, 45, who has extensive parliamentary experience, is being considered as the quota-filling woman for the slate, to serve as education minister. And party's social policy expert in Saarland, 54-year-old Volker Schneider, has already made a name for himself with the SPD as well, having served as the retirement and employment expert in the Left Party's faction in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament.

'We're the Cook, the SPD is the Waiter'

The situation in Thuringia is more complicated. Here the Left Party, SPD, and Greens are also very close in terms of the issues, and they're united in their goal of finally unseating Governor Dieter Althaus, a member of the CDU. But which of the three parties would then appoint the new governor? Polls show the Left Party leading over the Social Democrats. One opinion pollster, Infratest dimap, has the Left Party at 24 percent, the SPD trailing with only 19 percent, and the Greens with 6 percent.

"The Social Democrats are the small ones here," emphasizes Bodo Ramelow, leading candidate for Thuringia's Left Party. "We're the cook and the SPD is the waiter." The Left Party wants to be able to dream, at least, of seeing one of their members appointed governor of a German state for the first time. But it is precisely this Left Party success -- and the reevaluation of the party that would ensue -- that the SPD and Green Party want to prevent. The SPD's leading candidate, Christoph Matschie, has been tirelessly repeating his main condition for a coalition with the Left Party. That coalition should only form, Matschie says, if a Social Democrat is appointed governor -- namely, him.

What Matschie has stopped repeating, however, is that in order for that to happen, the SPD would need to be stronger than the Left Party. Ramelow is also no longer demanding the governor position for himself ("I don't need to have a desk") but instead has started cryptically claiming only "the right, as the strongest party, to make the nomination." That leaves the matter open as to whether the Ramelow would necessarily have to be the person nominated.

Meanwhile, the Left Party has quietly been developing a contingency plan, in order to still be able to participate in Thuringia's next government. If the party's lead over the SPD is small, it could offer a neat solution by stepping aside and joining the coalition as a junior partner. If the party shows more than a 4 percent margin over the Social Democrats, however, Lafontaine and his supporters would consider such an offer a sign of weakness, one that would be hard to explain to their own party base and to the voters.

If the latter is the case, the Left Party's is contemplating instigating a rebellion against Matschie within the SPD following the election. He's the one, after all, who committed himself to joining a coalition only as the senior partner. That's a major reason Ramelow ridicules him as "Matschilanti" -- a play on the name of Andrea Ypsilanti, the SPD's former leading candidate in the state of Hesse, and her failed grab for power there last year. She had promised ahead of the state election not to go into coalition with the Left Party but then attempted to form a minority government with that party's support. In the end an internal rebellion thwarted her plans.

Shedding the Image of a Protest Party

Thuringia's Social Democrats do in fact have a wing sympathetic to the Left Party, centered around Richard Dewes, former party leader in the state. But Matschie has had his anti-Ramelow program confirmed in a poll of party members, thus securing his position as the party's leading candidate. And he's certainly placed enough of his own supporters on the party's ticket and its executive committee.

This means that, should it prove possible to unseat Althaus, the most likely scenario will see the decision about the next governor resting on Ramelow's shoulders. If the new governor were to come from a party other than the strongest coalition partner, that would prove a first in German politics. Yet Lothar Bisky especially, co-leader of the Left Party together with Lafontaine, is pushing for Left Party participation in the government at any cost. The party desperately needs further examples of red-red coalitions -- along with the current one in Berlin -- to help shed its image as purely a protest party. Bisky feels sure that "a clever compromise" will be found after the election.

In the Left Party's plan, Ramelow would first claim the governor job for himself, in order not to lose face. As the strongest party, he would invite the others to enter into coalition discussions. The Left Party could then offer the SPD and Greens an attractive packet of ministerial posts -- far more than they would normally be entitled to according to their weaker election results.

Anticipating an SPD "no" to this plan, the Left Party knows it can then decry the Social Democrats as "undemocratic" and "power hungry" -- this in the run-up to the September federal election. That would presumably be enough to allow the Left Party to still participate in a grand "left-wing reform alliance" (Ramelow's words) in Thuringia in the end. In any case, Ramelow categorically rules out tolerating a coalition between only the SPD and the Green Party: "We want to govern."

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