Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Germany: Left party conference renews leadership, steadies course

On May 15, the far-left German party Die Linke held its national congress in the eastern city of Rostock, electing a new national leadership and debating a new draft program. 

At the conference, charismatic and popular left-wing firebrand – and renegade Social Democrat – Oskar Lafontaine, 66, stepped down as the party’s co-leader due to health reasons after a cancer operation.

Lafontaine helped co-found Die Linke, formed in 2007 from a merger of the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG – an amalgam of disgruntled Social Democrats, militant unionists and various left groups and individuals) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS – the successor to the old East German ruling party). Party co-leader and East German moderate Lothar Bisky, 68, a former leader of the PDS, also stepped aside.

While both men were instrumental in the merger that created Die Linke, they represent widely differing views in the new party.

Lafontaine, who served as head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and finance minister in the SPD government of Gerhard Schröder, quit in 1999 out of opposition to the party’s increasingly neoliberal policies. He opposed Die Linke compromising its social justice policies in order to enter coalition governments, and believed Die Linke could change German politics from outside government as well as from within.

Bisky, on the other hand, represented the powerful “realos” of the former PDS, who consider entering government a precondition of political relevance, and are willing to make some compromises in order to do so. This fault line continues to run through the young party, and the perceived compromises Die Linke has made where it holds coalition government in Eastern states has deepened the dispute.

The new Die Linke co-presidents represent a continuation of the existing power sharing arrangement between East and West.

From the West, the radical Bavarian unionist Klaus Ernst, 55, was elected with 74.9 percent in Lafontaine’s place, while the popular Gesine Lötsch, 48, who with one other woman MP spent three lonely years as the sole PDS parliamentarians, took Bisky’s place at the party’s helm, winning 92.8 percent of the vote.

Also elected were four deputy leaders – the Saarland MP Heinz Bierbaum and three eastern women, Katja Kipping from Dresden, “realo” Halina Wawzyniak, and the fiery Sara Wagenknecht of the Communist Platform. The new national executive consists of 17 women, 17 men, and a similar East-West ratio.

The conference, attended by 558 delegates, also saw the launch of the party’s new draft program, which was the cause of heated debate. Die Linke currently has no program, only a series of political "cornerstones", and the new program is not due to be adopted until next year.

The surprisingly militant draft program – formally co-written by Lafontaine and Bisky, but clearly Lafontaine’s handiwork – raised the ire of some of the more reformist Eastern members for its radical content, which includes calling for the democratic socialisation of certain industries and immediate strong action on climate change.

The mainstream media predicting a split over the platform or leadership were to be disappointed, however. Most dissenters were unwilling to be openly critical after Lafontaine’s 30 minute farewell speech brought the house down.

“Red Oskar” – as he is commonly known – took a red-hot scalpel to the speculators and economic system behind the financial crisis, and the governments who let it happen. He suggested that politicians emulate athletes and be honest enough to wear the logos of the companies that sponsor them on their shirts.

Lafontaine argued that Die Linke should trace its radical traditions from as far back as the slave revolts of ancient Rome, the peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, the November revolution in Germany and what he called the “freedom fight“ in East Germany in 1989.

He also outlined Die Linke’s current goals: a legal minimum wage, re-lowering the pension age to 67, reversing privatisations, and the softening the harsh unemployment laws. He called for the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan and stressed the democratic and socialist nature of Die Linke.

Despite overt hostility from all the other parties, the entire mainstream media, and even the secret police, who regularly spy on members’ activities, Die Linke has made itself a powerful and pivotal force in German politics. It won 11.9 percent in the federal elections last September, and is now represented in 13 out of 16 state parliaments.

Die Linke now faces the challenge of growing beyond its reliance on leaders like Lafontaine and determining its future political course. The German – and European – political landscape depends on which road they take.

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