BERLIN – The old question is “Who’s on first?” Or rather, who slid in first in the German elections? To hear some of the media, it was the left. That is correct if you count Gerhard Schroeder with his Social Democrats (SPD) and Joschka Fischer with his Greens as Left. With a slim majority of 306 to 295 in the Bundestag, they can rule the roost until 2006.

But if you see the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) as the left, or its major sector, it was a very bitter loss. For the first time since unification, the PDS will be represented in the Bundestag neither by a fraction nor a group – but by Petra Pau and Gesine Loetsch from East Berlin, the only PDS candidates to win pluralities in their districts. The party got only four percent in Germany as a whole – one percentage point short of the required entry hurdle.

When Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took office four years ago he stated that if he did not cut unemployment figures he did not deserve reelection. He failed and his opponent, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, kept harping on it, forgetting that the four million unemployed were the result of sixteen years of Christian Democratic Union rule. Several factors saved Schroeder. The flood disaster hit eastern Germany especially hard, giving him a chance to run from one inundated area to another, promising aid and looking far more authoritative than the clumsier Stoiber.

But the deciding factor was Schroeder’s decision to speak out against an anti-Iraq war. It was a surprising turn-around but it paid off.

Many people supported the PDS, especially in Berlin’s provincial election a year ago, because it was the party of peace, sharply and clearly rejecting every government decision to send tanks, troops or bombers anywhere outside German borders – in keeping with the (originally West) German constitution.

But the canny Schroeder and Fischer stole their thunder. Why vote for the PDS when the ruling coalition is also against the war? If they were to lose and Stoiber win – a buddy of neo-fascists Haider in Austria and Berlusconi in Italy – God help us! The old “lesser of two evils” principle worked again after the vigorous anti-war statements by both government parties.

The PDS had not only opposed war, it pushed for improved rights for women, the unions, the jobless, the handicapped; it had actively fought for minorities and oppressed groups abroad, like the Kurds, and against neo-nazis at home. But while many PDS elected officials did an exemplary job, there was next to no PDS-led action in the streets. There was little active support of union struggles. Even the peace marches were led by other groups.

All this showed up in the election figures. In Germany as a whole, dropping from 5.1 percent in 1998 to 4.0 percent meant a loss of about 20 percent of PDS supporters.

The PDS will hold a convention in the Gera, in Thuringia, in several weeks. Many of its 80,000 members believe that the PDS still has good chances to grow again as a fighting party, both for disadvantaged east Germans in particular, but basically for all Germans who work hard for a living.