Letter from Berlin Germany's Social Democrats and their Far Left Migraine

Germany's Social Democrats have a problem. The far-left Left Party of ex-Communists and disgruntled former SPD members keeps growing, meaning the SPD increasingly needs leftist help if it wants to wield power in Germany. That, though, could be political suicide.

The mathematics are relatively simple. If Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) want their candidate Andrea Ypsilanti to become governor of the state of Hesse,  they will have to rely on support from the far-left Left Party. But as easy as that may sound, the mere possibility is creating a massive headache for the center-left SPD. And it is a recurrent migraine that will have a massive impact on the party's ability to play its accustomed large role on the nation-wide political stage.

That impact is already being felt. For months, the SPD has said categorically that it would not form any sort of coalition with the leftists in Hesse. Indeed, the party, including Ypsilanti herself, said it wouldn't even accept passive support from the Left Party -- widely ridiculed by the political establishment as being little more than a neo-communist party born out of the remnants of the former East German governing party SED.

But this week, SPD head Kurt Beck began singing a different tune. The SPD, he said, would not "actively work together" with the Left Party. The implication was clear: If the Left Party wanted to lend Ypsilanti its support, Beck -- suddenly -- had nothing against it.

Outrage was not long in coming, much of it from Beck's own party. The conservative wing of the SPD, known as the Seeheimer Circle, blasted its leader by saying, "for the Seeheimer, the promise from Andrea Ypsilanti and Kurt Beck is still valid: no cooperation with the Left Party of any kind." Peter Struck, SPD floor leader in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, likewise reminded his party of Ypsilanti's campaign promise. "Ypsilanti has clearly stated: 'We don't want to depend on the support of the Left Party,'" Struck said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday also pointed out that the SPD has done little to deny rumors that it was preparing to work together with the Left Party in Hesse.

The question, in short, is rapidly becoming one of major strategic significance for the SPD. Should the Social Democrats enter into partnerships with a rump communist party whose predecessor played a major role in the Cold War division of Germany? Or, put another way, can the SPD afford not to?

This is not the first time the conundrum has arisen. The eastern German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania had a so-called "red-red" government pairing the SPD and far left until 2006. Another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt also had one, preceded by mudslinging remarkably similar to this week's. And the city-state of Berlin is currently run by a red-red pairing. Those states, though, all inherited significant nostalgic support of leftists following the 1989 collapse of the East German state. With support for the post-communists virtually non-existent in the rest of the country, the Social Democrats could treat those alliances as one-offs unworthy of any strategic beard tugging.

Collecting the Disillusioned

Times, though, are changing. As early as the general elections in 2005, it became clear that the reconstituted Left Party -- formed by a marriage between leftists in both halves of Germany -- was becoming an important power broker on the left side of the political spectrum. In that election, the Left Party ended up with 8.7 percent of the nationwide vote. With the CDU barely beating out the SPD and the two joining forces in the coalition now led by Merkel, however, the leftists could be ignored.

With recent elections in western German states, however, it has become clear that the Left Party is no longer just an eastern German phenomenon. In late January elections in Lower Saxony, the party got 7.1 percent of the vote while in Hesse, they came it at 5.1 percent -- both record highs. According to polls heading into Sunday's city-state vote in Hamburg, the Left Party stands to clear the 5 percent hurdle into parliament there too.

There's little mystery about what's driving that support. Reforms introduced by the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, saw thousands turn away from the Social Democrats, disgusted by the party's support for painful welfare cuts. The Left Party, led by former Social Democrat leader Oskar Lafontaine, was there to collect the disillusioned. Many see the party's success as being driven by a massive protest vote.

But as hard as the party has tried to purge itself of its communist past, most in western Germany are still skeptical of any group that provides a home to a number of former East German party hacks. It is a fear that was reinforced just last week. A Communist Party member who had entered the Lower Saxony parliament on Left Party coattails said on German television  that the Berlin Wall had been built to keep West Germans out of the East and also expressed understanding for the East German secret police, the Stasi. Although the Left Party quickly distanced themselves from her, the party's candidate list heading into the Hamburg election likewise includes a number of radical leftists and one member of the German Communist Party.

Still, polls indicate that election results there could be similar to those in Hesse, meaning that if the Social Democrats want to move into the governor's mansion, they may have to depend on the Left Party. Nationwide polls indicate that, for the moment at least, the same predicament may also present itself to the SPD when it comes to the national elections next year.

This week's infighting makes it more obvious than ever that the Social Democrats in Germany have no plan for dealing with the threat from the left. Even worse, competing views are threatening to split the party even further. The SPD candidate in Hamburg Michael Naumann's answer to whether he would work with the Left Party was clear: "No, no, no, nyet," he said. But we've heard that before. And if that remains the SPD's answer, it could be that they will be saying nyet to heading up a state government any time soon.

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