Germany's Left Party Survives a Cliffhanger
The media were keen for a real wide split in the Left Party. In truth, a lot of the members feared the same. The long-standing quarrel between the two wings -- often called the reformers versus the fundamentalists -- had crippled activities in the party far too long. It seemed very possible that all the hopes of past years might be buried at the election congress this past weekend in Goettingen. The party's victory in 2009, with nearly 12 percent of the national vote and 76 deputies in the Bundestag, had been frittered away; there had been one defeat after another on the state level; the national polling figures had dropped to about 6 percent, thus threatening the ability of the party to even remain in the Bundestag after next year's elections. The other parties were simply ignoring the Left as if it was already a goner, and the key role of the Left as an example and support for leftist parties all over Europe had all but disappeared. Would the Gottingen congress sound a tinny death knell to all the old hopes?
If you believe some of the media you might think it did. Some journalists dug hard to explore and exploit any differences, disappointments, or disagreements. That is, after all, their assignment. But it would seem that they missed the boat.
It is true that one grand old man of the party, Gregor Gysi (now 64), started things off with a merciless analysis of past blunders, especially of the sharp political division which has split the Bundestag members into two feuding factions -- he even used the word hatred to describe the worst outcroppings -- and said that if things continued that way he could no longer act as caucus chairperson, indeed if they can't overcome differences it must be considered whether the two groups should not separate. His analysis dwelt on the dispute about whether the Left should welcome or join coalitions with the Social Democrats, as often advocated and sometime practiced in the eastern German states, or condemned, as by some in the West. He pointed out that for historical reasons the situations were completely different in the two regions; at the height of its strength in 2009 the Left got 8.7 percent in the western states, in no small measure thanks to Oskar Lafontaine, 68, the West German leader from Saarland, while getting 28.5 percent in the East (but with a far smaller population). Considering past history and media hostility both were remarkable achievements, but the differences obviously required different strategies and tactics, which must be understood and appreciated by the other side.
Then, after his polemics about the disagreements, nasty as they have been, Gysi pointed out that a strong revival of the Left is not only important to its own members. As the only true fighter for the needs of most people, the only real antagonist of the financial interests now ruling the roost, and ruining it, the only fighter for a policy of peace -- no military deployment, no export of weapons -- it bears a responsibility to the people of Germany and Europe as well.
The other grand old man, Lafontaine, also made a very passionate speech. The media waited for an angry response; rumors of their allegedly broken friendship have been circulating for weeks. But he disagreed with Gysi on only one main point -- or rather one word: "We must ban the very word 'split' from our vocabulary," was his message. Despite disagreements we are united in all our basic aims! It was due to our influence that the other parties even considered the question of a minimum wage, hitherto rejected by all of them. We raised the question of dropping the pension age back to 65 from 67; we helped channel sentiment against the war in Afghanistan -- or anywhere. We are needed, more than ever.
Basically, both men said the same thing, so did both of the new co-presidents, and so did other major speakers, including the party's leading theoretician, Sahra Wagenknecht, 42, who rejected calls to run for co-president and was elected as one of four vice-presidents. It was she who warned that the lack of a strong left, in times of crisis, opened the way for the far right.
The votes, with the possible candidacies open until the last minute, were full of suspense. Part of this was due to the long-announced, hotly controversial candidacy of the East German Dietmar Bartsch, leader of the so-called Reformer wing, who tends towards closer ties to the Social Democratic Party (which almost always rejects such advances, on all but local levels).
The Left has an unusual rule in all its elections, including the one for the highest office. First a women's slate is voted on. When this is completed a second, mixed slate is open to both men and women. This has resulted in the majority of female representation in the Bundestag, and it now meant that the first vote for president was between two women, Katja Kipping, a 34-year-old redhead from eastern Dresden, versus the older Dora Heyenn, head of the party in western Hamburg. In Kipping's Saxony the reformer wing is very strong, but she herself has not been too close to either wing; her mainly private interest was the question of a guaranteed basic income. It was no political split between the two, but the younger, more dynamic woman won with 67 percent of the vote.
An unwritten but not ironclad tradition expects a balance of one man, one woman, one East German, one West German. At one point it looked as if there might instead be a leadership of two women. But when it came time to choose the co-president the other woman dropped out, leaving two male contenders, the controversial Dietmar Bartsch and Bernd Riexinger, head of the party in western Baden-Wurttemberg, a union leader, not too well-known generally but a friend of Lafontaine. Bartsch was disadvantaged; his election would have meant two easterners. Partly to avoid this imbalance, perhaps, but also to avoid the greater possibility of a split on political differences, the delegates chose Riexinger with 297 votes against Bartsch with 251.
For the other governing positions there were Easterners, Westerners, men, women, reformers and "fundis," though those leaning further left seem to have been somewhat stronger.
But thus far there has been no more talk of a split; everyone, including Bartsch, speaks of building a fighting party, of winning more elections, of fighting coming battles against very definite levels of poverty in Germany and, even more, against fear --fear of not finding a job, fear of losing a job, fear of impossibly higher rents and of cuts in medical care.
It is too early to tell whether the two wings can really grow close enough to fly upwards again. There seemed -- from afar - near unanimity on the need for it. Problems certainly have not disappeared, but hopes seem high again, and there is a deep sense of relief among nearly all the delegates that they are still together. The almost entirely new leadership team, led jointly by Kipping and Riexinger, must now try to cement over fissures, to grow together and lead the way for the only party in Germany with the will and the potential for moving forward, fighting the good fight, developing solidarity with similar groups and parties in other countries -- and maintaining a belief that the current economic system in Germany, the rule of big business and the big banks, with all their servile politicians, eventually needs profound changes.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).