Even the illuminated red supermarket sign above their heads matched their party color. On Sunday evening Oskar Lafontaine, Gregor Gysi, Lothar Bisky and Klaus Ernst gathered for a moment outside the party venue in renovated brewery in the trendy Berlin district of Prenzlauerberg and celebrated another victory for their Left Party. Just a few meters away their supporters were cheering the election projections as they came in, while the four top party bosses beamed like schoolboys, flinging their arms around each others necks and patting their arms. "In Bavaria we are over 6 percent," Ernst, who hails from the southern state, says to Lafontaine. The party boss pretends to be baffled. "What?" says Lafontaine, before they all laugh and head into the election party.
The Left Party have a lot to laugh about this election night. They have reached double digits, securing 12.4 percent of the vote, a marked improvement on their 2005 result of 8.7 percent. And they also did well in state elections in Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. "We have broken the sound barrier and have double digits," Bisky told the cheering supporters while Gysi described the result as "historic."
'The SPD Needs a Rebellion'
Lafontaine allowed his fellow party leaders to speak first. For almost 10 minutes he stood there speechless on the podium. He looked left and right and straight ahead and the smile never once left his face. Laftontaine knows that the Left Party's triumph is above all his own success. "We want the left-wing camp to be stronger," Lafontaine tells the jostling crowd of supporters -- but for that there first of all has to be a left-wing camp.
It is an exhortation to the SPD and Gysi was even clearer in his choice of words. "The SPD now needs a rebellion and it has to make itself social democratic."
For the Left Party this election night is a clear affirmation of their campaign: They have been re-elected to parliament with a clear growth in support while the SPD has suffered a historic defeat. That means that the Left Party will expect a clear swing to the left in the SPD before they will countenance cooperating with it in the future. "We will stay on our path, the SPD has to change its path," said the party's deputy leader, Ernst, who is a former Social Democrat. Otherwise the SPD faces even further losses in the future, he warned. "Then at some stage they will drop to 15 percent and the last one to leave can turn out the light," he said. Ernst is certain that the SPD will soon draw the necessary consequences from the election debacle: "This will lead to a change of leadership and direction in the SPD." It is clear what kind of change in direction the Left Party wants to see the Social Democrats go in, they have said it often enough -- move away from the Hartz IV welfare reforms introduced under the previous SPD-Green coalition and an end to the Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan.
There was still a lot of applause left for one of the great figures from the SPD's past. The Left Party wants to "dare more democracy," Lafontaine said, referring to the famous quote by former Chancellor Willy Brandt -- but that is only possible with a "new economic and social order."
Mixed Result for the Greens
A bit further to the southeast of the city, the mood is a lot less euphoric at a former post office where the Greens are holding their election party. And it's not due to low turnout at the event. The Greens are still a strong party in Berlin, and have been during this election. In the neighboring election district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, veteran Green Hans-Christian Ströbele just won his third direct mandate in first-past-the-poll voting.
Nationwide, the Greens also performed well on Sunday -- delivering the best election result in the party's history, garnering double-digit support for the first time. But as party chair Claudia Roth stepped onto the stage just before 7 p.m., she said: "That's bitter." Standing next to her was her party co-chief, Cem Özdemir, who was looking rather small -- after losing a direct mandate by a thin margin to a CDU candidate in Stuttgart. But what is more bitter for his party is that it failed to achieve two of its top election goals: hindering the creation of a government led by the conservatives and the FDP and becoming the third-biggest party in Germany's parliament.
Instead, Roth and Özdemir must look on as Guido Westerwelle's FDP not only enters into a government as Merkel's junior partner, but also as it far surpasses the Greens in size in the next parliament. The Left Party will also be stronger than the Greens, which has fallen to the rank of fifth-largest party in the Bundestag.
The Green Party's leading candidates -- Renate Künast and Jürgen Trittin -- were the first main candidates to appear publicly on Sunday. By then, though, it was already clear that Merkel's conservatives and the FDP had won the election, and as the pair approached the stage with camera crews and photographers in their wake, one could have easily mistaken it for a funeral procession. Nevertheless, the pair gave a lively address to their supporters.
"We have something to offer and that's why we have been elected into the Bundestag with double-digit support," Künast said. Trittin, who will now lead the party together with Künast in parliament, said, "we have made grandious gains of over 25 percent" over Greens' showing during the 2005 election, which should help to make up for some of the dampened enthusiasm.
For some, though, it wasn't enough. "This was a crappy result for us," one Green said. But another said, "At least the front lines of German politics have become clear again."
Will Future See 'Red-Red-Green' or 'Jamaica?'
Not for the Greens, though. In the next few years, the party will have to come up with a strategy for getting back into the government. With a moribund SPD, it will be impossible in the near future for the parties to govern together as they did under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and many are looking to the Left Party. "But that doesn't mean they will automatically go to the left camp," said one strategist. The Green Party's more mainstream "realo" politicians will likely make increasing overtures towards Merkel's conservatives. Indeed, the Greens govern together with the Christian Democrats as the junior partner in Hamburg. The party might also be willing to work with the FDP in what is referred to in Germany as a "Jamaica coalition" because the colors affiliated with the parties are the same as those on the Jamaican flag.
On the other end of the Green political spectrum, even leftists like Trittin are skeptical about working together with the Left Party and the SPD in a government. "I don't see a willingness on their part," he said. "The Left Party has been strengthened as a protest party." Looking to the state of Thuringia, where recent election results have opened the door to the possibility of a Left Party-SPD-Green "red-red-green" government coalition, however, Trittin spoke of a "growing responsibility for other majorities."
After Sunday's vote, Bodo Ramelow, the Left Party's leading candidate in the state of Thuringia, believes that a red-red-green government in the state has even better prospects. The federal election results "will have to influence the sense of reality in the SPD and the Greens in order to be able to build other types of majorities in the parliament," said Ramelow.
But it's also an open question -- what sense of reality his own party will have.