After a year of stellar successes, almost 600 delegates from Germany's new left-wing party, Die Linke, came together for the party's first ever congress, held in the east German city of Cottbus on May 25 and 26.
Former East German communist Lothar Bisky and former Social Democratic Party (SPD) national president Oscar Lafontaine, once dubbed by the media as "Europe's most dangerous man", were re-elected as co-chairs of the party, and a social justice-oriented platform was adopted for the coming period, which includes state elections in Bavaria this September and federal elections next year.
Die Linke was officially formed in 2007 as a fusion between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS — the successor to the former East German ruling party) and a collection of militants, unionists and socialists from the west organised as the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG). Die Linke now has almost 80,000 members.
The PDS, still popular in the east, had failed to win electoral support in the west. However, the anti-social "Hartz IV" laws of the SPD government of Gerhard Schroder led to a grass-roots rebellion against the SPD in the west. Thousands of militant unionists and community activists revolted against Schroder's neoliberal policies, forming the WASG. They were joined by Lafontaine and a left-wing split from the SPD in the lead up to the 2005 federal elections.
After the PDS-WASG joint ticket out-polled the Greens in these elections — winning 54 seats — the two groups fused into Die Linke. Having won representation in 10 out of 16 state parliaments, it is now Germany's third largest party, after the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left SPD. While it is polling at around 14% nationally, in Saarland, Lafontaine's home state, Die Linke has reached 29%, almost double the support for the SPD.
Die Linke's success can be attributed in part to the failure of Germany — with Europe's strongest economy — to translate economic gains into social benefits. While the neoliberal policies of the CDU/SPD "grand-coalition" government have cut unemployment, they have done so by increasing the working poor — forcing many people into extremely low-paying jobs.
According to a government report, up to 18% of Germans were living in poverty in 2005, and a quarter of the population earns less than US$24,000 per year. The country has also been rocked by a series of tax avoidance scandals, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen drastically.
While this travesty continues, Die Linke has begun to set the political agenda. Their policies, such as introducing a minimum wage, higher taxes for the rich, and paid maternity leave — once considered taboo among the other parties — have suddenly re-appeared on the mainstream national agenda in an attempt to neutralise Die Linke's popular appeal.
As a result, Lafontaine is now referred to by many as "Germany's secret chancellor".
At the Cottbus conference, Lafontaine gave an electrifying speech laden with references to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and the Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg. He slammed the "perversity of financial market-driven capitalism" for causing unemployment and poverty in the name of profit, and argued that fighting the influence of markets is "the central question of our times".
In April, Lafontaine also proposed including sections from the Communist Manifesto in Die Linke's program. Conference delegates also called for greater public expenditure on health, education and environmental repair, a ban on layoffs by profitable firms and higher property, corporate and inheritance taxes.
Die Linke remains the only German party opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and Lafontaine — who has called US President George Bush a terrorist and praised Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez — railed against NATO at the conference, calling it a US-led machine that violates human rights around the world.
Die Linke is also the only German party to oppose the new European Union constitution, on the grounds that it is entirely pro-business, and was the sole opposition in the Bundestag (the national parliament) to a recent proposal to increase politicians' salaries.
The rise of Die Linke has lit a fire under big business, which is worried about a left-turn in Germany, and the German media has led an ongoing attack on the party. The security services have taken part in the onslaught — a recent security report decried "extremist" elements within Die Linke.
While these attacks have failed to dampen support for Die Linke, the party has vulnerabilities. Where it has entered coalition government with the SPD, in eastern states like Berlin, Die Linke has joined in the implementation of neoliberal policies, causing a revolt by local members.
While in the west, the SPD has refused to deal with Die Linke, the left-wing party remains open to coalitions with the SPD. There is a danger that Die Linke might be drawn into fruitless governing coalitions unless the party adopts a set of clear policies in relation to the question.
There is a potential fault line in Die Linke between a more moderate wing and a radical wing that includes Lafontaine, many unionists and a number of smaller, explicitly socialist platforms. The direction Die Linke takes will be determined in the struggle to forge a party with a platform that seems to genuinely put people before profits, both in the streets and in coming elections.
Until then, as Lafontaine argued in Cottbus – "the wind of history is in our sails".