Shock Announcement Left Party Leader Oskar Lafontaine Has Cancer
Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine has announced he is suffering from cancer. The news has shocked the German political establishment and raised questions about the future of the far-left party, which has recently been gaining more and more support.
Firebrand German politician Oskar Lafontaine has been responsible for his fair share of headlines over the years. But his surprise announcement on Tuesday had little to do with the cut and thrust of party politics for once. Lafontaine, who is the co-leader of Germany's far-left Left Party and one of the country's best-known politicians, announced that he is suffering from cancer.
In the statement released on Tuesday afternoon, Lafontaine was non-committal about what the illness would mean for his political future, saying only that he would decide at the beginning of next year, after considering the state of his health and the medical prognosis, "in which form I continue my political work." However members of his party expressed their confidence that Lafontaine would return in 2010 to continue leading the Left Party.
Lafontaine, who is 66, did not say in his statement what kind of cancer he was suffering from. However the German news agency DPA reported Wednesday that the politician had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, quoting sources in Berlin.
Lafontaine is due to undergo an operation, which has apparently been planned for some time, on Thursday. Senior Left Party members told German media they did not expect Lafontaine to require a long hospital stay and were confident of a full recovery, given that the illness has apparently been detected at an early stage.
The announcement took the German political establishment -- and by all accounts the Left Party itself -- by surprise. "I almost fell off my chair," said prominent Left Party politician Bodo Ramelow, who expressed his full sympathy for Lafontaine.
Lafontaine himself was continuing with business as usual on Wednesday, when he addressed a plenary session of the Saarland state assembly.
In early October, Lafontaine made the surprise announcement that he would not continue as the Left Party's floor leader in the Bundestag, the German parliament. However members of the Left Party denied Tuesday that the decision was connected to the leader's illness.
At the time, observers felt that the decision was motivated by Lafontaine's desire to focus his energies on his home state of Saarland, where he hoped to form a coalition government with the SPD and Greens, which would have been a first in a western German state. The Left Party was the third strongest party there, having won 21.3 percent of the vote in the Aug. 30 state election. However the Greens, who played the role of kingmaker in the coalition haggling, decided to go into government with the center-right Christian Democratic Union and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party instead -- apparently out of fear they would be overshadowed by the forceful Lafontaine, who has been nicknamed "the Napoleon of the Saarland."
Lafontaine, who is famous for his outspoken views and fiery rhetorical style, is one of the more colorful figures in German politics and has surprised Germany with his decisions several times over the years. A former German finance minister and former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, he resigned from the two positions in 1999 in a shock decision which many in the SPD still hold against him. He was fiercely critical of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's attempts to move the SPD to the political center -- a shift which helped cause the party's decline in recent years.
Lafontaine joined the western German left-wing party WASG in 2005. The WASG later merged with the PDS, the successor to East Germany's SED communist party, to form the Left Party, which positions itself to the left of the SPD. Since then the Left Party has gone from strength to strength, succeeding in stealing votes mainly from disaffected SPD supporters. It gained 11.9 percent of the national vote in the 2009 general election, making it the fourth strongest party in Germany. Lafontaine is largely responsible for the Left Party's success in the states of the former West Germany.
It is unclear how the Left Party would fare if Lafontaine were to step down as leader. Bernd Riexinger, head of the party in the state of Baden-Württemberg, told DPA that Lafontaine was irreplaceable because of his role in keeping the western and eastern sections of the party together. The party still needs several years before its two sides become fully integrated, Riexinger said, adding that if Lafontaine were to withdraw from politics now, "it would be really bad timing."
dgs - with wire reports