Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Lothar Bisky, a co-leader of the Left Party, delivers a speech in Dortmund, Germany, in 2007.
Lothar Bisky, a co-leader of the Left Party, delivers a speech in Dortmund, Germany, in 2007. Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Germany's Left Party might be new, small and radical, but it has made deep inroads in the national political landscape. In its nine months of existence, the 72,000-member group has helped put social justice atop the national agenda, and its message of closing the gap between rich and poor increasingly resonates with Germans who believe economic growth is passing them by.
As an opposition voice, the Left Party has pushed its more established rivals to adopt policies they initially opposed. Last year, for example, the ruling "grand coalition" of center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats introduced minimum wage and extended unemployment benefits. Newspaper editorials have called this development "Germany's shift to the left," or in reference to Left Party co-leader Oskar Lafontaine, "the Lafontainization of the Republic."
Lafontaine, a former Social Democratic figurehead, describes himself as the people's advocate. "The rich are getting richer, while working people increasingly struggle to make ends meet," he recently told a group of coal miners. "That's immoral."
In his fervent, crowd-pulling speeches, he spreads his vision of a society sheltered from the damaging effects of globalization. His solution involves a welfare state, more social benefits, more taxes. And he has called for an end to all German military missions abroad, including Afghanistan.
Unrealistic and Undemocratic?
Although the Left Party has become a political force in Germany – with representation in 12 of the country's 16 state parliaments after this year's regional elections – some political observers say it promises more than it can deliver.
"The Left Party gives people simple solutions without having to prove that these solutions can be financed," says Oskar Niedermeyer, a political analyst at the Free University in Berlin.
Social Democratic parliamentarian Johannes Kahrs is even more critical. Like many politicians, he considers the Left Party populist and believes it makes unrealistic promises. "It's like Christmas and Easter and everything you can wish for on one day, but it just doesn't work," Kahrs says of the party's wealth redistribution program.
And the knocks against the party aren't limited to its policies. The Left Party counts among its ranks hardcore communists and former members of the Stasi, the feared secret police agency in what was East Germany. Conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently described parts of the Left Party as "a clear extremist threat," and Germany's domestic intelligence services have been monitoring individual members since the party's inception.
A Political Phoenix
In 2007, Lafontaine merged the reformed communist party of the East with a small, Western left-wing party. The product of that union was Die Linke, the Left Party, which Lafontaine leads along with Lothar Bisky.
Lafontaine, 64, has made a remarkable political comeback in recent years. He was the Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate, party chairman and federal finance minister in the 1990s. But he grew disillusioned with the realpolitik of the SPD and left three years ago.
Lafontaine re-emerged last year when he established the Left Party and, in doing so, positioned himself as an opponent of his old party.
A New Five-Party-Landscape
The Left Party's burgeoning presence sparked a political crisis within the SPD last month following the regional elections. The SPD had planned to establish a minority coalition government with the Left Party in the state of Hesse, despite a pre-election promise not to work with the radical group. The ensuing internal and public debate profoundly damaged the SPD's credibility, and the party's approval ratings have been at record lows ever since.
With the Left Party firmly on Germany's political map, it joins the conservative Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Libertarians and the Greens in what is essentially a five-party landscape.
This has made traditional two-party alliances, such as unions between Social Democrats and Greens or between Christian Democrats and Libertarians, almost impossible. New match-making options are being tested on a regional level, however, as Hamburg pioneers a state government coalition between Christian Democrats and Greens.