In the German elections in October, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) nearly doubled its vote and won 30 seats in the Bundestag (parliament). Earlier this year, Sarah Stephen and Chow Wei-Cheng spoke to Dr Sylvia-Yvonne Kaufmann, deputy president of the PDS, and Helmut Scholtz, the party's Peace and International Policy Working Group coordinator.
In the general elections, the party which enjoyed the largest increase in representation was the PDS. Could you explain to us why the PDS was so successful?
Kaufmann: There was a big pressure and campaign against the PDS, which went through all political parties from the conservatives to the Greens. The high point was Chancellor Kohl calling us "red-painted fascists". Despite that, we managed very well because the people, especially in East Germany, knew that we were not the old SED [Communist Party].
We stand for equal rights for East Germans within the united Germany, and we are focused on the problems of everyday life which people have. I think this is one of the biggest strengths of the PDS.
The second reason is that we're really standing for an alternative policy. In domestic politics this included the abortion law, the military role of the government and asylum [for refugees] law.
The PDS has been the only political force in Germany with a clear position for the choice of women on abortion. As well we have a clear position of sending no German soldiers outside the country. Regarding the asylum law, our demand was to keep German frontiers open for people who have to flee wars, or who are politically persecuted.
We also had a very good electoral campaign. For example, we had very good posters and video clips on TV. To some extent that also influenced the result.
We also had a new attitude to taking part in elections with something we called "open lists". We decided to open our candidate lists to personalities from a broad spectrum on the left: alternative forces, trade unionists, people involved in culture etc. This gave them the opportunity of running as a candidate without joining the PDS.
Now we have in the national parliament 13 MPs out of 30 who are not members of our party. We are very hopeful about how this project will work because we think a left force today has to be very open to society.
Scholtz: I don't think there is one tactical way or method of electoral campaigning. A real change is dependent on the content of politics. Yvonne Kaufmann was a candidate for the Euro-Parliament and we also opened the lists for this â even to foreigners living in Germany, coming from other countries of the EU. Even amongst EU left parties, we were the only party which did something like this.
What role do elections play in building the PDS?
Kaufmann: Building the PDS with election campaigns is not at all a strategy. We just had a situation where we had 19 elections on all levels, from local to European; and during election times, the atmosphere is very sensitive to what politicians say and what political parties stand for.
Of course these election campaigns help us very much to overcome what I would call a party crisis, where three or four years ago there was nobody, even inside the PDS, who could give you any prediction about the possibility for us to survive in a totally changed situation.
What are some of the problems you envisage from having 6000 deputies? For example, how do you balance the need to administer local councils with doing the political agitational work?
Scholtz: It is a contradiction, because at the national level we are a very clear left socialist opposition party. On the other side, if you want to be in clear opposition you must also show people what you want to change and by what means you're going to do that.
When you get into positions to do that in smaller towns and villages, you must try to carry out what you have demanded in your election campaign. It will be a great challenge for the PDS in the East German districts to carry out the policies within the restrictions that exist, where the higher level is up against you.
In smaller towns, one can come into direct contact with inhabitants, to start the dialogue of how society should be organised.
Kaufmann: After the lnder [state] election in the East there's a Social Democratic-Green minority government now, something like a new experiment for German politics. It's also interesting because it can survive only because we are tolerating it as a minority government â helping them to make reforms with our vote in the parliament. That brings you up against problems â how far you can go with your demands concerning reforms and political decisions. There are limits on the parameters within which you can act as an opposition party.
Scholtz: To illustrate this, there had been a plan to build a new highway. It was a proposal by the Christian Democrats before the election, then the Social Democrats and Greens formed the new local government. This party was strictly against the highway, but agreed to build it when they were part of the minority government. The PDS, at the state level, was against the highway both before and after the elections. But at the local level, all parties including the PDS were in favour of the highway because, of course, there were jobs.
I only want to illustrate how complex the question of the environmental demands and social questions is, and what you must do when you are in power: you must solve the problems of today, not tomorrow.
How does parliamentary work relate to other tings the PDS is involved in?
Scholtz: It is essential that you don't concentrate only on a parliamentary level. You can achieve parliamentary changes only with very great pressures from outside â from the social movements.
The PDS tried from the beginning to open the party to society â to sympathisers or interested people to take part in formulating the policies of the party. We are trying to go into society answering the growing pressure from extreme right-wing forces. I think there is a need for a strong anti-fascist position.
The PDS has not been very strong from the beginning in the trade unions, and there have been large campaigns against the PDS, but during the last two years I think that's been in the process of change. A lot of workers saw that only the PDS supports their political and social work.
Of course, a lot of large West German-dominated trade unions are still dominated by the Social Democratic Party, and we shouldn't overestimate our own role. But it seems more and more that the unions also need political partners in left-wing and green parties.