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State elections a test for Germany's left

Members of former East Germany's ruling communist party could emerge as a powerful force in Sunday polls.

By William BostonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2008


Some 20 years ago, Vera Lengsfeld, then a student at East Berlin's Humboldt University, was plucked from a small group of protesters by the dreaded Stasi secret police and, within days, stripped of her citizenship and deported to the United Kingdom.

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Her crime: On the fringes of the annual state-sponsored demonstration honoring old-school communists Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, Ms. Lengsfeld and friends carried a banner bearing a quote from Luxembourg: "Freedom is Always the Freedom to Dissent."

As it turned out, Lengsfeld returned to Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, and was elected to parliament first for the left-wing Greens and then the conservative Christian Democrats.

But as German voters head to the polls this Sunday to elect state legislatures in Hesse and Lower Saxony, Lengsfeld is troubled by the polls. The rag-tag band of surviving members of former East Germany's ruling communist party could emerge as a formidable, possibly decisive force. The party, now simply called The Left after merging last year with an alliance of west German leftists, has regrouped to become the third-largest political force in unified Germany. A year before the campaign for the next national elections gets under way in 2009, these provincial state polls will be a test of power for Germany's new left – and set the country's political agenda.

Lengsfeld is filled with anger. "It's just absurd," she says. "We thought they were so discredited that no one would ever vote for them again."

According to the respected Allensbach polling agency, The Left are now the third most-popular party behind the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). In its December poll, 37.9 percent of those surveyed said that if national elections were held now, they would vote for the CDU, compared with 28 percent for the SPD and 10.6 percent for The Left. That puts The Left ahead of Germany's pro-business liberal Free Democrats, who polled 10.4 percent, and the environmentalist Greens, with 9.5 percent.

Not only are large numbers of Germans prepared to vote for The Left, but opinion polls consistently show that many voters believe the former communists are more likely to confront the injustices they feel have come with globalization – the gap between rich and poor, for example, and standing up for a strong social welfare state.

These used to be the core themes that won elections for the SPD. But as leader of the government from 1998 to 2005, the SPD pushed through economic reforms, cut taxes, and refused to bend to the unions. And now, according to Allensbach, 29 percent of those polled say The Left is more likely to defend the social welfare state, compared with 22 percent who chose the SPD. A whopping 44 percent said The Left is more likely to narrow the gap between rich and poor, compared with just nine percent for the SPD.