Berlin. One big hurdle has been overcome; the election officials in all 16 German states have ruled that the new party "The Left" (or the "Left.PDS") is entitled to a place on the ballot in the key September 16th election. Some opponents of the new party had raised constitutional objections and even plan to go to court if necessary - but their chances are now much slimmer.
The new party is a temporary sort of alliance - "sort of" because electoral alliances of two parties are not allowed by the German Constitution. It has overcome these strictures and achieved legitimacy by becoming a temporary version of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) which has opened its slate to candidates from other groups, especially the recently-formed Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG). It also changed its name, at special conventions in each state, to the "Left", adding the letters PDS in states where it will be advantageous (mostly in the five East German states). Most members of both groups, the WASG, which is stronger in West Germany, and the PDS, far stronger and now often leading in East Germany, hope to join officially and become a regular new party within a year or so.
The two agree on most points, especially on a clean break with the business-friendly, anti-social program of the SchrÃ¶der government coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, which was almost totally supported by the main opposition parties on the right, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats. They demand a reversal of the cuts in jobless pay, the increases in medical expenses, the tax breaks for the wealthy and the support of employers against the unions which have been dominant in German politics for years. They also oppose involvement in any wars or sending troops abroad to intervene in foreign conflicts, which are barred by the Constitution but frequently engaged in by the present government - not in Iraq, but in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and other areas. All these policies will be challenged.
Some points need ironing out, partly because the influence of the unions is stronger in the largely West German WASG than in the PDS and several specific labor demands need to be included. Partly, too, because a few Trotzkyist groups, though small, have more influence in the WASG than in the PDS. There are also some personal difficulties, especially in Berlin, where a few WASG leaders had left the PDS in recent years because of its participation in the state government, in coalition with the SPD, which required support of some unpopular, socially unpleasant measures aimed at getting the city out of its deep debt.
But these all seem relatively minor problems just now and, with only four weeks left, electioneering is moving ahead.
If there had been any hopes of fair treatment in the media they were soon dispelled. The "Left" Party, often lumped together with the "extreme right" under the label "populist", has been under constant attack from the start. All four major parties fear that their "united front" in favor of big business and foreign adventures will be exposed by a fairly large group of left-wing deputies, headed by two very able orators, Oskar Lafontaine from the WASG (a former top SPD leader), who tops the list of candidates in North Rhine Westphalia, and Gregor Gysi of the PDS, leading candidate in Berlin. Everything is being done to blemish their image and weaken the Left Party, and it has lost a few percentage points in the national polls. It stands currently at 9 percent. Five percent are needed to get into the Bundestag. It is still very strong in the eastern, one-time GDR states.
The main fear of the Christian Democrats, led by the East German Angela Merkel, whose policies are even further right than those of the SPD, is that an almost equal number of seats for the SPD and the Greens on the one hand (the present coalition) and the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats on the other, might result in the delegates from the Left holding the balance of power.
Although SchrÃ¶der and his SPD now call for popular social welfare improvements which they themselves prevented or disparaged, and have even revived slightly some of their criticism of Bush policies, there is only marginal hope that they can recoup their losses in the polls within four weeks (they now stand at 28%, the "Christians" at about 40%). There is much speculation about the possible necessity of forming a "grand coalition" of SPD and "Christians", without the smaller parties, but this solution, while exposing the Social Democrats as total hypocrites, would give the left an even stronger position as opposition force. It is still angrily rejected by the more leftish SPD deputies.
The media are as full of speculation as the streets are now full of election posters. There is suspense about the TV duel between Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel on September 4th and, four days later, between the Greens' Joschka Fischer, currently Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democrats, and Oskar Lafontaine of the Left Party.
Despite all efforts to badmouth them, the appearance of a new force on the left could greatly alter German politics. The other parties, though putting up as brave front and trying not even to notice it, while stealing its program points but insisting they would never join it in any coalition, are clearly running scared.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and writer, has lived in Berlin since 1958. He authored the autobiography "Crossing the River" (University of Massachusetts Press).