New developments on the Left

Article published on Sept. 12, 2005
Article published on Sept. 12, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Linkspartei (Left Party) is altering Germany’s political landscape, but is its success borne out of disillusionment with the SPD-Green reform agenda or are we witnessing the birth of a new political movement with pan-European implications?

The Linkspartei (Left Party) is the new name of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which sprung from the old communist Socialist Unity Party (SED). Popular in the East, the Left Party has forged an electoral alliance with the Labour and Social Justice Party (WASG) which draws its support from the West and comprises disillusioned members of Schroeder’s party and trade unionists.

Two stalwarts of the German Left are to thank for the party‘s electoral appeal: Gregor Gysi, an eloquent lawyer and former Chairman of the PDS, has decided to step into the political limelight again and is expected to attract voters in the East. Schroeder‘s one-time Finance Minister and arch-rival, Oskar Lafontaine, who is also a previous Chancellor-candidate for ruling Social Democrat Party (SDP) and former party Chairman, is particularly appealing to the western electorate and functions principally as a magnet for disillusioned, left-oriented SDP voters.

Socialism for the disillusioned

Uncontrollable record unemployment, rising state debt and criticisms of Schroeder’s ‘Agenda 2010’, which is attempting to reform the social security system and reinvigorate the economy at the expense of benefit levels, have all bolstered the foundations of the new Left Party. The party’s manifesto, unveiled in Berlin, includes proposals to introduce a monthly minimum wage of approximately €1250 (£880) and a plan to increase and standardise unemployment benefit levels across the country. 16 years after reunification, West Germans still receive higher levels of social support and earn substantially higher wages than their eastern counterparts. The manifesto also calls for basic social insurance and a basic pension.

Though the more established parties have repeatedly called the economic feasibility of the Left Party’s manifesto into question, it is a political force which cannot be ignored. According to polls in recent weeks, the Left Party now lies in third place behind the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with around 10% of electoral support. This has implications for the traditional black-yellow coalition of Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Even if the SDP continues to reject proposals to form a coalition with its left-wing critics, the Left Party is forcing all parties to expose their economic outlooks, which are often regarded as adhering to a neo-liberal framework. Even though the other parties argue that the Left Party‘s economics do not add up and warn that the party would set up a socialist state of yesteryear, the ‘Left’ (Die Linke, as the party calls itself), is still managing to attract disgruntled individuals from all walks of life.

A pan-European phenomenon?

Other left-leaning parties in Europe have also been making headway: Spain and Portugal have been shifting to the Left, for example the Portuguese Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda), a collection of left-wing intellectuals, has gained 6.4% of support. Upcoming elections in Italy and France could see similar levels of support, especially if the splintered left-wing can forge a working relationship. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves considerably to the left of Blair’s Labour party, the traditional bastion of left-wing politics. In the Czech Republic, the communist KSCM currently occupies second place in the polls.

However, the extent to which Europe’s traditionally embattled and weak left-wing parties will be able to capitalise on their new level of popularity is unclear. It is possible, however, that the anti-globalisation movement could act as a cohesive force. This group Europe is in the position of being able to mobilise and attract people traditionally far removed from the Left’s standard base of support. However, the clear difference between the non-political opponents of globalisation, who have the potential of mobilising on a transnational level, and political parties who are invariably anchored domestically, gives the impression that a pan-European left-wing movement is unlikely to emerge.

Whether the German Left Party can manage the transition into a genuine European party of the Left remains to be seen. The party’s importance undoubtedly lies in its ability to acquaint itself with the political agenda and thereby with the established parties’ traditional realm. If the other left-wing parties of Europe could also manage this, European politics could be fundamentally altered.