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(SPIEGEL) Germany's East Heading Left - and nobody knows what to do about it (except us ;-)

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  • Nobby
    http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/0,1518,365809,00.html English Site Under the Scope Special: German Elections July 19, 2005Print | Send this
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      English Site > Under the Scope > Special: German Elections
      SPIEGEL ONLINE


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      July 19, 2005Print | Send this article | Feedback
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      LETTER FROM BERLIN

      Germany's East Heading Left

      By Charles Hawley in Berlin

      German President Horst Koehler has to decide whether or not to dissolve parliament by the end of this week. Surprisingly, however, that is not the main political story in Germany these days. The new "Left Party" is on the march. And the country's politicians don't seem to know what to do about it.

      Co-head of the new Left Party Oskar Lafontaine. Everybody knows him, but nobody knows what to do about him.
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      REUTERS
      Co-head of the new Left Party Oskar Lafontaine. Everybody knows him, but nobody knows what to do about him.
      One wonders exactly how much coffee and cake German President Horst Koehler has put away in the last three weeks. Not, of course, for an over-abundance of free time, but rather, because the guy has an important decision to make. And it's a decision that, by its very nature, almost requires Koehler to spend massive amounts of time meeting with, interrogating and otherwise kibitzing with experts on the German constitution. By the end of this week, Koehler -- a man who occupies a position in the German political constellation that is normally free from much influence -- must decide whether snap German elections can be held in September or not.

      And yet, despite the import of Koehler's impending verdict, there's a feeling in Germany of the calm before the proverbial storm. And the storm is not how the German President will decide on Thursday or Friday. After all, bets are that Koehler will accept the artificially constructed no confidence vote against the government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder early this month and will dissolve parliament. It's a decision that 75 percent of Germans hope will come.

      The left is coming

      No. The storm is the coming campaign. And the current calm is akin to Formula One race drivers speeding around the track on the day before the big event to determine their starting positions. The only problem this time around is that there is a new team that has entered the race. And nobody really knows what to do about it.

      The new alliance of leftist parties is set to be a major player in the coming elections.
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      DPA
      The new alliance of leftist parties is set to be a major player in the coming elections.
      The new team, of course, is the newly renamed "Left Party" -- an alliance of the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the leftist-idealists from the (take a deep breath here if reading out loud) Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG). One could, of course, merely label them as a fringe collection of frustrated German voters and forget about them. But that would be akin to shoving one's head deep into the sand. Just days after the party's official christening, it stands to become Germany's third biggest party, boasting support of up to 12 percent, compared to 42 percent for the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) behind Angela Merkel and 27 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD) behind Schroeder. And the heavy-hitting duo of the well-known Gregor Gysi and the even better-known former SPD leader (and former German finance minister) Oskar Lafontaine is likewise not to be ignored.



      Even worse for the CDU and the SPD, however, is the fact that the Left Party is now the largest party in the states of former East Germany. Fully 30 percent of voters surveyed there said they plan to vote for the Left Party against 29 percent for the CDU. In other words, a party that bases its existence on collecting Germany's dissatisfied has a future. And in the East -- where unemployment rates hover around 20 percent, which is more than double the joblessness in Germany as a whole -- that dissatisfaction is high. Over the weekend, a new report issued by the German Institute for Economic Research indicated that the income gap between Eastern and Western Germany is also widening, with 20 percent of Eastern Germans living under the European Union poverty line.

      Searching for a plan

      It is now becoming clear to Germany's more established political parties that something needs to be done. But they very clearly don't know what that something might be.

      Until now, the SPD has sought to address the left-wing threat by spicing its campaign platform with a liberal dash of red-colored salt -- including a proposal to make welfare payments in the former East equivalent with those in the West. And, of course, a certain amount of praying that the Left Party would just collapse under the difficulties of welding Gysi's PDS and Lafontaine's WASG together to form a unified whole. Now, however, Schroeder's party seems to have realized that the phantom menace is for real -- and that the SPD itself is in grave danger of sliding into political obscurity. The new strategy? Stop calling Lafontaine a "hate preacher" -- as the SPD party in the the Eastern German state of Brandenburg recently did -- and engage the new party in a serious discussion on the issues.

      And even though they are currently far ahead in the polls, the CDU too is becoming concerned about the Left Party's power in the East. Merkel's popularity ratings are once again slipping as it becomes clear that the party's election strategy is based on divulging as little as possible about its plans once in the government. Support in the East could turn out to be critical. Thus, some CDU members are likewise calling for a campaign that does more to address the concerns of voters from the former East Germany.

      Gregor Gysi is well-loved in former East Germany.
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      DDP
      Gregor Gysi is well-loved in former East Germany.
      Indeed, the only party that seems to be on sure footing when dealing with the threat from the left is the Green Party. Front man Joschka Fischer has been on the attack ever since Oskar Lafontaine warned of the dangers of Fremdarbeiter, or "foreign workers", a word choice that recalled Nazi Germany and which opened up the Left Party to charges of rightist populism. Fischer has called Lafontaine a "German Pim Fortyn" -- a reference to the late Dutch populist -- and a "German Haider" -- an allusion to the right-wing populist Joerg Haider from Austria.

      But no matter what strategy Germany's more established parties decide to use, it is clear that the Left Party is not going to go away -- and that Germany's parliament will likely soon be a five-party legislature (the Liberals -- or FDP -- being the fifth.) And the storm is coming. Soon after Koehler makes his announcement later this week, the campaign is sure to begin in earnest.



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