Nearly twenty-five years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialist party Die Linke (“The Left”) looks set to form government in the eastern German state of Thuringia for the first time.
After two months of uncertainty following September 14 state elections, the way was cleared for Die Linke to head a coalition government in December, alongside the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, on November 4 when nearly 70% of SPD members in Thuringia voted to enter the coalition.
Die Linke has governed at a regional level before, as a junior partner to the SPD in Berlin and Brandenburg. But this marks the first time they will lead a government.
It also marks the first time since German reunification that a socialist party will take charge of a government — a breakthrough for a party that has been treated as a pariah by the political and media establishment.
Die Linke was formed in 2007 by a merger of the Party for Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former East German ruling party) with dissident social democrats, left-wing radicals and trade unionists from western Germany.
As well as opposing the neoliberal economic consensus in Germany and the European Union, Die Linke’s support for greater social spending and opposition to NATO puts it at loggerheads with the other major parties.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had topped the September 14 poll with 33%. The SPD vote, however, collapsed to only 12% — less than half the support won by Die Linke.
It was only when SPD leaders rejected the chance to continue as junior coalition partner to the CDU that a so-called “red-red-green” coalition became a realistic possibility.
The SPD has repeatedly refused to enter coalitions at the national level with Die Linke, despite the SPD, Greens and Die Linke winning enough seats to form a left-wing federal coalition government last year. Instead, the SPD formed a “grand coalition” with the CDU, helping to enforce the vicious austerity drive across the Eurozone.
Die Linke’s leader in Thuringia, former trade unionist Bodo Ramelow, is from western Germany rather than from the East. This fact may have helped the SPD accept the idea of a coalition. Ramelow is widely considered to be a pragmatist rather than a “romantic socialist”.
Another reason is that 25 years of CDU rule in Thuringia have been characterised by low wages and high unemployment. The state has also gained further notoriety as a centre of operations for the neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground. After its vote slumped in September, many in the SPD fear that further association with the CDU will result in its support falling further.
Unlike the SPD, the Greens placed a more odious condition on joining a coalition with Die Linke. The Greens insisted that Die Linke describe, in writing, the former East German regime as a “rogue state” where the rule of law did not apply — a view widely rejected amongst Die Linke supporters in the East.
After complaining publicly about the demand, Ramelow eventually acquiesced – with qualifications — clearing the way for a coalition government.
Developments in Thuringia have led to a predictable outbreak of anti-communist scaremongering across Germany. Even before the election took place, Merkel responded to strong polling for Die Linke by warning voters not to “let Karl Marx back into the state premier’s office.”
German President Joachim Gauck broke with tradition to criticise Die Linke on national television. Despite the presidency being a largely ceremonial and officially neutral position, Gauck openly suggested that Die Linke was not to be trusted, and might engage in the type of repression associated with the former Stalinist East German authorities.
On November 9, about 4000 protesters from the CDU, SPD, smaller right-wing and neo-Nazi parties took to the streets in the state capital Erfurt to call for Ramelow to resign. During a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in German parliament, Die Linke was described as “dragon spawn” and the “wretched remains” of the East German dictatorship.
In recent months, Die Linke MPs in Thuringia have had their car tyres slashed and wheels loosened, and have received threatening letters and phone calls.
The SPD’s entry into coalition with Die Linke is seen by many as a test-run for a possible “Red-Red-Green” coalition at a federal level. It marks part of the SPD’s attempts to extricate itself from a series of damaging “grand coalitions” with the right wing Christian Democrats and reaffirm its place in the centre-left of German politics.
A Die Linke-led government in Thuringia also causes another headache for Merkel. It further cuts her government’s power in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament), and strengthens the opposition.
Ramelow’s installation as premier still depends on a vote in the state parliament, where a Die Linke-SPD-Green coalition would have a single seat majority.
But if the Thuringia coalition government is a success, it could bring the SPD a step closer to accepting a coalition with Die Linke at the national level — and herald the end of the Merkel’s government.