In a community hall in the small western German state of Saarland, a group of around 300 people, mostly coal miners and their families, recently gave their rapt attention to a politician on stage, who was telling them exactly what they wanted to hear.
He said that mining had a future in Germany even though coal imports are now much cheaper than heavily subsidized domestic supplies. He lambasted the government for not doing more to help out this industrial region near the French border that has struggled with structural change. And he castigated the rich, calling for the introduction of a wealth tax and raising corporate tax rates.
“It’s immoral,” he yelled from the stage, referring to government policies that benefit corporations while welfare benefits are cut. “Higher income people have to contribute their fair share.”
Then Oskar Lafontaine stepped back slightly from the podium and let the loud and sustained applause wash over him.
Lafontaine is a co-leader of Die Linke, or The Left party, a new socialist force enjoying unprecedented levels of support for a young political movement in Germany. The party was created last year out of a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reformed communist party from East Germany, and a small left-wing party in western Germany made up of discontented former members of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Mostly western trade unionists, they believe the SPD betrayed its principles by drastically reforming the country’s welfare system under former chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Lafontaine, once SPD chairman and Schröder’s first finance minister, has electrified crowds of supporters with his speeches and books railing against current German government policies that allegedly allow the rich to accumulate wealth while the working class struggles to make ends meet.
And that message is resonating with Germans who are casting their ballots for the far left in bigger and bigger numbers. Since the party’s creation last year, The Left has attracted around 10,000 new members, while the SPD and the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the country’s two biggest parties, are hemorrhaging supporters.
Marlis Krämer, 70, is one of those who left the SPD for The Left. She was an SPD member for 25 years and served as a city councilor for seven of those. But earlier this year, she gave her local SPD office a letter with 12 points explaining why she could no longer in good conscience remain a member.
She could not stomach the welfare cuts, the German military mission in Afghanistan, and the trade unions’ acceptance of low or no wage hikes for workers. She said she wanted to support a party with an alternate vision for the country.
“Globalization as it’s happening now means that a small few are calling the shots all over the world, and they’re forcing their way on everyone else. Capital is the driving force,” says Marlis Krämer. “Oskar Lafontaine is the one who has the courage to stand up to capital.”
Tapping the zeitgeist
The Left party’s timing for its national debut was fortuitous, coming as it did at a time when Germany’s traditional social market economic model appears to be under threat. The shockwaves of globalization have weakened some of the country’s oldest societal and economic pillars, and Germans are being forced to rethink several of their cherished, but expensive institutions – such as comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, sector-wide wage agreements, and secure jobs for life.
That is not sitting well with many Germans and they are the ones looking leftwards on the political spectrum for answers.
“These new voters for the Left party are what researchers call ‘modernization losers,'” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “Those who are losing out in globalization and are worried about their jobs and very concerned about social justice.”
It appears to be a growing group. A new study by McKinsey shows that unless German economic growth starts exceeding three percent annually soon (it is now forecast to stay under two percent), 10 million fewer people could belong to the group of middle-income earners in 2020 than did in the early 1990s. That information came on the heels of another survey showing that number of people in Germany earning less than 50 percent of the average national income increased from 7.3 to 11.4 percent from 1996 to 2006.
But many politicians say the sometimes painful changes made to the welfare and labour systems are needed to help Germany stay competitive in the global market. Johannes Kahrs, a Social Democratic parliamentarian and member of the centrist wing of his party, has watched The Left drain support from his party’s base. He does not like it, but he understands why it is happening.
“They see that many things are going in the wrong direction — like companies are making huge profits, laying off people at the same time, [and] the CEOs get a pay rise of 30 to 40 percent,” said Kahrs.
The Left party’s vision for society includes higher taxes for corporations, a wealth tax, re-nationalizing some privatized companies, boosting welfare and jobless benefits, and increasing pensions. The party also wants to end all of Germany’s military missions abroad.
Critics say The Left and Lafontaine’s ideas are dangerous for Germany’s economy and its relationship with its allies, and the party’s politicians are making promises they could never keep.
“It’s like Christmas and Easter and everything you can wish on one day. It doesn’t work,” said SPD parliamentarian Kahrs.
On the streets of Saarbrücken, where Oskar Lafontaine used to be mayor, there has a lot of discussion about The Left party.
“There’s a yearning for a clear, understandable message and vision and that has helped the party. Through simple language, they connect with everyday people and offer protection against globalization,” said Bernd Thomas, 48, who was shopping in this western German city on the French border. “I think they’re a good pinprick for the establishment, but I wouldn’t really want to see them in power.”
But now The Left has a firm place on Germany’s political map – it has representation in 12 of the country’s 16 state parliaments – joining the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Free Democrats and the Greens in a national five-party landscape, that has made Germany’s traditional model of building governing coalitions at the state level almost obsolete.
But observers say many voters regard The Left as too radical to govern on a federal level. The party counts among its ranks hardcore communists and former members of the Stasi, the feared East German secret police. 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.
However, others point out that Germany’s environmentalist Green party was also considered too extreme when it burst on the West German political scene in the early 1980s. But in 1998, it became junior coalition partner to Schröder’s Social Democrats for seven years.
But the Greens and the SPD no longer have enough support to set up a government on their own, meaning for The Left party it could just be a question of time before they’re called upon to help form a left-leaning federal coalition in Berlin.