BERLIN – Wily media experts hunted breathlessly in the big congress hall for a split, either between delegates from East Germany and West Germany, between party currents of “Realo” realists versus “Fundi”-fundamentalists, or maybe between personalities; just any old split weakening or even crippling this nasty young interloper which was causing so much trouble for Germany’s four traditional parties.
In Rostock, a port city on the Baltic Sea, 558 delegates gathered for the second congress of the party, founded just three years ago, called Die Linke, The Left. It had been a hasty marriage; one partner was a large East German party which, in the years since it severed ties with its deceased parent, the old ruling party in East Germany’s German Democratic Republic, had moved into second place, sometimes first place in the five eastern states and the boroughs of East Berlin. The other far smaller partner was a mainly West German amalgam of disgruntled Social Democrats, militant union members and various leftist groups and grouplets. Under the leadership of the East’s Gregor Gysi and Lothar Bisky and the West German Oskar Lafontaine, the two had joined together.
The charismatic Lafontaine from the far western state of Saarland, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in 1990 and its head for four years, had quit that party when it veered sharply to the right. He retired for a few years until the chance for a new party arose. In no small measure due to his popularity, this newcomer had overcome anti-GDR, anti-Communist emotions enough to win 11.6 percent of the vote in last September’s nationwide elections, placing 76 delegates in the Bundestag, more than the long-established Greens, and creating an unaccustomed, complicated five-party situation. It was also able to overcome the 5 percent hurdle in 13 of the 16 German state legislatures thus far, most recently in the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
But now in Rostock the two co-presidents, in their mid-60s, bade their farewells, Lafontaine for health reasons after a cancer operation, Bisky because he is active in the European Parliament and heads the European Left Party. Would the party break in two without them?
There were undeniably problems and disagreements, some based on the very different backgrounds of Westerners and Easterners (or “Wessies” and “Ossies”). Ironically, most East German leaders tend to be more reform-minded, or, as some would say, less revolutionary. The Left is already junior partner in the city-state of Berlin and in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin. It just missed government leadership in Thuringia after the Social Democrats finally preferred a coalition with the Christian Democrats. Next year, after state elections in Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, both in the East, The Left has good chances of joining or even heading two more government coalitions.
But such successes are also a main source of problems and disagreements. Once in government, tight budget pressures can cause The Left to take positions contradicting its own policies, like laying off government workers, reducing some social programs or continuing the open-pit mining of lignite coal to save jobs. Some party members, mostly in the generally more militant West, look askance at such compromises and stress opposition, extra-parliamentary actions, including civil disobedience, and even a possible future general strike, now forbidden in Germany.
Suddenly, after elections a week ago in North Rhine-Westphalia, this problem also arose in a West German state. The Social Democrats and Greens could now govern there, but only with The Left and its 11 legislature seats. Will they accept such an alliance? And if so, should The Left accept it? Social Democrats and Greens used left-wing slogans and made progressive promises in the election campaign but have been known to forget such promises when in office. This also raises a deeper question: should The Left work for reforms here and now, tacitly accepting the present social system, or rather reject any role as “doctor at the death-bed of capitalism,” as such a policy was once optimistically described. These and similar questions were discussed in a surprisingly militant draft program by Lafontaine and Bisky, now up for debate in the party. Not a few in the East are very critical of its unusual militancy. That too is where the media hunters searched for splits.
Not every “Realo” loves such strong positions of Oskar Lafontaine. But his half-hour farewell speech was so analytical, vigorous and moving that he brought the house down, for many, many minutes, making it difficult for anyone to say anything against him or, more important, against his views.
Yet Oskar, as everyone calls him, attacked no one in the party. His scorn was reserved for those financial speculators largely responsible for the economic woes in Europe, the USA and elsewhere. In recent years, he claimed, they have gained such immense power that “the parliaments and governments are now no more than marionettes panting to keep up with the finance markets.” He spoke of athletes honest enough to wear the names of company sponsors on their jerseys and suggested that politicians do the same. Foreign Minister Westerwelle, for example, might wear the logo of the big hotel chain which paid for much of his campaign and was rewarded by special tax treatment. Lafontaine demanded global regulation of the financial markets, whose international nature made it impossible to solve the problem on a purely national basis. He pointed out that when he and The Left warned of the crisis well in advance they were dismissed as fools or demagogues.
Oskar spoke of the party’s goal, democratic socialism, meaning an end to exploitation and oppression and as much freedom as possible for every individual, limited only where it impinged on the freedom of others. The traditions of The Left, he maintained, did not only reach back to the history of the two German states with all their differences, or to the older working class movement, but also to the slave revolts in ancient Rome, peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, the November revolution in Germany and what he described as the freedom fight in the GDR in 1989. This freedom struggle will never be ended, he stated.
He also outlined current goals of The Left: a minimum wage law, reversal of the increased pension age to 67, cancellation of laws forcing the unemployed to accept any and every job at ridiculously low wages. He called for the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, saying with pride, “We are the only anti-war party in Germany!”
And like so many speakers he stressed the need to oppose neo-Nazis wherever they showed their heads. He praised the achievements of the party in only three years, which often forced other parties to improve their programs. And he thought The Left might join coalition governments with Greens or Social Democrats, but only if they were willing to revert to their own principles, siding not with the shareholders, financiers and speculators who seize the wealth, but with the working people who create it, who must one day control their own labor. Not new words, perhaps, but daring ones.
There were other impressive speeches, especially by Gregor Gysi, who will remain leader of the party’s Bundestag caucus. None of them dwelled on differences, all stressed the need for East and West members to grow, work and fight together, with a stress on the grass roots membership.
The first months of 2010 had seen difficult times for the party after both Lafontaine and Bisky announced they would resign. The vacuum needed a quick response. There had been recrimination among some leaders, including Lafontaine. Though not completely forgotten, these were now smoothed over in a conciliatory manner; all those involved got ovations. As a result of these tremors over 80 percent of the participants in a postal referendum had agreed to elect a new double leadership. This was accomplished at Rostock. One new chairperson is the universally popular Gesine Loetzsch, a Bundestag delegate from the borough of Lichtenberg in East Berlin who, with one other woman delegate, spent three isolated and discriminated years as the lone party representatives in the Bundestag. In Rostock she received 92.8 percent of the separate vote. The other chairperson is Klaus Ernst, a metal workers union leader from Bavaria, more controversial than Loetzsch, whose total was 74.9 percent, far below that of Loetzsch but well above the 60 percent he received three years ago. A third largely unknown candidate got 13.9 percent and was applauded but not elected.
For the job of managing secretary this pattern was maintained: a man from West Germany and a woman from East Germany (who had moved there from the West). Elected as vice-chairs were a parliamentary delegate from West German Saarland and three women from East Germany, the fiery Sara Wagenknecht from the Communist Platform, Halina Wawzyniak from the reformist or Realo wing and the Dresdener Katya Kipping. A financial expert (whose father was from India) became treasurer, and the executive committee was a large mixed team, with 17 women, 17 men, and about the same East-West ratio. Election rules in The Left prescribe at least half women in elections; in the Bundestag caucus the ratio is 40 women to 36 men.
The problems and disagreements did not disappear; there is plenty to argue about in the draft program before it is voted on next year. But at the congress there was a constant call for respectful dialogue and for unity in working towards the main aims of The Left, a better life for all without war or poverty. The party defied some hopes and predictions and stayed together so the media hunters, in their persistent search for some kind of split, will have to settle this time for a banana split.