Letter From Berlin Trouble Ahead for Germany's Secret Chancellor

Oskar Lafontaine, co-leader of the Left Party, has been described as Germany's secret chancellor because of his growing political influence. But the party's outlook is clouded by the absence of a manifesto, divisions over policy, a lack of suitable candidates and tension at the top.

Oskar Lafontaine, co-chairman of Germany's Left Party, must have been beside himself with joy last week during a talk show on how his party was dictating the country's political agenda. He gave a satisfied grunt when the host of the popular Wednesday night show, watched by millions of Germans, called him the "secret Chancellor."

No German politician appears more self-satisfied than Lafontaine these days. No party is doing as well as his Left Party. It's already the third-strongest political force in Germany measured in terms of the number of members with political mandates. The Left Party is represented in the Bundestag, or lower house of the federal parliament, as well as in 10 of Germany's 16 state parliaments and the European Parliament in Brussels. In the eastern states, once part of communist East Germany, its members are in almost every town council.

And the party, once concentrated in the east, appears to have succeeded in establishing a strong foothold in the western German states over the past year, since it was formed through the merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the Communist party that ruled East Germany, with a western political group made up largely of disgruntled former Social Democratic Party (SPD) members.

It has vaulted the five percent threshold to get into the state parliaments of Bremen, Lower Saxony, Hesse and Hamburg. And Lafontaine hopes to become the Left Party's first state governor in an election next year in his home state of Saarland.

It hasn't taken long for Lafontaine to shake up Germany's political scene. The center-left SPD, which he led from 1995 until 1999, has suffered most from the Left Party's rise, hemorrhaging members, voters and support among trade unions.

But life has changed for the other parties as well. None of them can afford to ignore issues of social justice. Even the pro-business Free Democrat Party has been forced to soften its tone on welfare policy.

Merkel's Wings Clipped

But the most prominent victim is Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). She wanted to spend her time in power pushing ahead with reforms, but Lafontaine and a sudden shift in public sentiment thwarted that ambition.

"We're already governing the country from our opposition benches," he declared recently, and he has a point. The Left Party has redrawn Germany's political map more drastically than any other newly formed party in decades. In short, it looks as if the party will have reason to celebrate when it convenes for its first regular party conference this coming weekend in the eastern city of Cottbus.

Self-congratulation will top the agenda, even though the Left Party's success is built on weak foundations. Lafontaine's impressive floorshow is distracting attention from backstage problems which threaten the party's prospects over the coming years.

For one, it lacks a concrete program of policies and has a severe shortage of creativity and qualified staff. It is profiting from the current left-wing zeitgeist -- the prevailing public sentiment that there's not enough social justice in Germany, that the social safety net threatens to become threadbare. Ultimately though, people are voting for the Left Party because of the questions it is asking, not because it has any answers to them.

In front of the cameras, the party leadership is showing a picture of unity. But the picture is quite different behind closed doors.

During a recent meeting of Left Party members of the German federal parliament, Lafontaine announced he had a serious matter to discuss, ushered the MPs' staff out of the meeting room, ordered the blinds to be lowered and urged all those remaining in the room to keep quiet about what they were about to hear.

Then he projected a series of alarming graphics on the wall which showed the results of an internal survey of voter trends. It showed that even the Left Party's voters didn't have much faith in its economic policy know-how and mistrusted it on foreign policy.

And even on the party's central issue of social justice, a majority of respondents had more faith in the Social Democratic Party.

The survey estimates the Left Party has the potential support of 16 percent of voters across Germany. But that's only impressive at first sight, because similar analyses put theoretical support for the Greens and the FDP as high as 30 percent. In reality, neither the Greens nor the FDP make it into double figures very often.

Short-Lived Success?

When the blinds went up, the comrades' confidence had evaporated. Since that survey, the party's leadership is worried that Germany's leftward shift may prove short-lived. Lafontaine has responded by urging party workers to do more to shore up grassroots support.

The Left Party has realized that it can't just keep on claiming to represent the disadvantaged, and that voters will soon be demanding a credible, realistic set of policies. But it has little of substance to offer. It's no coincidence that the Left Party is the only German party without a manifesto, and that's not going to change in the foreseeable future. It merely has an array of "programmatic cornerstones, not all of which make much sense. Even Lafontaine admits that the party's demand for a "retirement at age 60" "requires discussion."

Then there are the contradictions. In his speeches Lafontaine demands an "abolition of Hartz IV," the hated system of means-tested welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed. The party prides itself on being radical, on wanting to change the system. But in parliament it only calls for an increase in benefits. That doesn't sound like changing the system. That's just asking for more money.

Deputy leader Katja Kipping wants unconditional basic income for everyone, an idea Lafontaine opposes and wants to shelve indefinitely. In fact, Lafontaine prefers to espouse his own program. He wants to pull German troops out of Afghanistan but has yet to come up with an exit strategy.

He wants to expand public services, make child care free of charge, cut taxes for low-income workers, reverse recent cuts in the pension system. His proposals always make everything sound simple. And it's astonishing how much bile he can fit into his 40-minute speeches when he rails against "blithering idiots" and "blatherskites." He appeals to basic instincts. His world is loud and mercilessly self-righteous. Even his own party is uneasy about his populist style.

No Manifesto Until After 2009 General Election

Lafontaine wants the party to adopt a manifesto in two years at the earliest -- after the next general election, scheduled for autumn 2009. He has already declared that he wants it to include passages from the Communist Manifesto of 1848. He's worried that debating a party program any sooner would give the party's numerous factions too much opportunity to carry out damaging debates in public.

The new party that will come together for its first congress in the city hall of Cottbus on Saturday doesn't really understand itself. Some 59 percent of delegates will come from eastern Germany and 41 percent from the west, with little to unite them, apart from a mutual distrust.

The easterners fear their ageing brand of warm socialism is about to be westernized. The more radical western leftists regard their eastern comrades as wimps spoiled by their participation in eastern regional governments, or by their hunger for power.

But even beyond the east-west division, the party has countless factions and working groups ranging from the Communist Platform to the Women's Group. They've been busy feeding their "crazy ideas" to the party's head office ahead the party conference, says one senior member of the commission tasked with reviewing the myriad proposals.

The Left Party's western members have been especially vocal in their demands, which include free computers for every member of the party. Seven proposals have come in calling for the party to publicly distance itself from Lafontaine's wife Christa Müller, who has enraged members by likening child care in daycare centers to female circumcision. The proposals are aimed at Müller but are intended to hit Lafontaine.

Such disputes are harbingers of tough times ahead. At the moment, the party's success in recent elections and opinion polls is still disguising the rifts. But everyone knows times are going to get harder for the Left Party.

Staff Shortage in the West

There's a risk that its westward expansion could grind to a halt because of a chronic shortage of party workers in the west. In the state of North-Rhine Westphalia alone, the Left Party needs to find 2,000 candidates for local elections due in 2009, said campaign manager Bodo Ramelow.

Quantity is one challenge. Quality is an even greater one. The Left Party is finding it hard to find western candidates who aren't embarrassing. Its membership in the region is made up of disappointed Social Democrats, angry trade unionists and former members of various communist groups. Several members continue to attract the attentions of the country's domestic intelligence service , the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The western members aren't especially diligent when it comes to paying their membership contributions, either. They want to change the system, but they don't want that process to cost them anything. In Saarland, a local Left Party member has complained about irregularities in membership records and fee payments, but Lafontaine has quashed any internal criticism of the party's activities in his home state. He decides what's right and what's wrong, especially in Saarland, where he wants to crown his party's westward march with a triumph in the state election in 2009.

Indeed, everything comes second to Lafontaine's deeply personal ambition. The Left Party has rarely seen its chairman behave in a more autocratic fashion than now. He's letting the whole party sense that it owes its current success largely to him.

Misgivings about Lafontaine's Self-Importance

The head of the Left Party's parliamentary group, Gregor Gysi, has realized that Lafontaine's self-importance is taking its toll on the party. Gysi and Lafontaine are seen as equal partners in the party's power structure, but the first cracks are becoming evident in their relationship.

Gysi was irritated when communist Sahra Wagenknecht tried to get herself elected as deputy leader with Lafontaine's blessing. And Lafontaine's wife's hostile comments about daycare for children have been getting on Gysi's nerves.

Lafontaine in turn felt wrong-footed by Gysi's speech on Israel a few weeks ago when he criticized the anti-Zionism of many on Germany's left.

Gysi wanted his speech to mark the beginning of a more realistic foreign policy program for the Left Party, something all parties have been calling for as a precondition for entering into government coalitions with it on the regional level. Lafontaine, by contrast, toyed with the idea of visiting Iran and is sticking to his fundamental positions on foreign policy.

Asked to comment on the dissent between himself and Gysi, Lafontaine's office said he had a cold and couldn't be reached by telephone. Two days later he was seen happily marching along in a trade union demonstration in his home town of Saarbrücken.

But despite the misgivings about Lafontaine and differences with Gysi, it's clear that the Left Party would never have been this successful without its current leadership. The lack of young talent poses a greater risk to the party's future than the absence of a manifesto or staff problems in western Germany.

There simply aren't any credible alternatives to Lafontaine and Gysi. Party manager Dietmar Bartsch, campaign chief Bodo Ramelow and deputy chairwoman Katja Kipping are possible candidates for high office, but they're all dwarfed by the great chairman. The problem is that they're going to have to take over at some point in the not-too-distant future. Lafontaine is approaching 65 and Gysi, although slightly younger, has already had three heart attacks.

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