On January 27, Germany's newest and third-largest party, Die Linke (The Left), scored historic victories in two important state elections, as anger grows at the failure of the economic boom to close the gap between rich and poor.
In Hesse, Germany's finance hub, Die Linke scored 5.1% — enough to send 6 members to the state parliament. In Lower Saxony, a generally more conservative state, Die Linke achieved an impressive 7.1%, winning 11 members in the legislature.
The election campaign in Hesse was marked by the racism of incumbent Premier Roland Koch of the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), whose attacks on "young, foreign criminals" backfired, and the CDU vote plummeted by 12%.
The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), on the hand, shifted its rhetoric left-ward in an attempt to undermine the growing support for Die Linke. The lead SPD candidate, Andrea Ypsilanti, combined swipes at the a number of Die Linke's progressive policies while trying to dissociate her party from previous unpopular policies it has introduced.
Despite a fierce anti-communist campaign, Die Linke managed a massive victory, running on a platform of increasing the minimum wage, nationalisations, caps on managerial pay and demilitarisation.
These are Die Linke's first electoral wins in large western states, and with representatives in 9 out of Germany's 16 state legislatures, the victories are particularly notable given the party's short history.
Die Linke was formed from the recent fusion of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) — which emerged from the ruins of former East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party — and the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG), a left-wing split from the SPD.
While the PDS was popular in the east — reaching 25% of the vote — it failed to make much ground in the west. The WASG — led by former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine who resigned in opposition to the party's shift to the right — was stronger in the west.
With the fusion completed last year, Die Linke became the third force in German politics. In the 2005 federal elections, Die Linke had scored 8.7%, giving it 54 seats in parliament — ahead of both the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. In May last year, Die Linke won 8.4% in the city-state of Bremen — its first electoral success in the west.
The latest victories — in larger, partly rural, states — puts Die Linke in a good stead for the February 24 Hamburg elections and for upcoming elections in Bavaria, a state with a large rural population that, like Lower Saxony, is usually thought to be more conservative.
In Hesse, neither major party and its allies (the CDU and the Free Democrats on one hand, the SPD and the Greens on the other) won enough seats to form government. This makes Die Linke's six seats critical.
The SPD and Greens, however, have ruled out any coalition with the "communists", raising the possibility of either a "grand coalition" between the CDU and SPD (as it exists nationally) or new elections.
While Die Linke has expressed its willingness to enter coalition with the SPD and Greens, the current scenario may be a blessing in disguise. Where Die Linke has done so, as in Berlin, it has helped implement anti-social policies, losing popular support and causing serious divisions within its own ranks — many of whom oppose forming coalitions with the neoliberal SPD.
Regardless, Die Linke's victories have placed them on the map, securing a lot more space to organise the party on the ground and to strengthen the movements in a renewed class struggle in Germany that are reflected in the fights against rising unemployment, repeated cuts to social welfare, and an insidious form of "work-for-the-dole".
These are social problems that have been presided over by the previous SPD government, and worsened under the "grand coalition" of the CDU and SPD.