Merkel facing a communist resurgence in German elections

In local German elections, the successor to East Germany's Communist Party makes major inroads, a potential challenge for Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of national elections in September.

PARIS – Sunday's local German elections favoring left parties were variously described as “a wake up call,” a “shock,” and a “setback” for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But while the results may affect her plans for Germany's next governing coalition, few analysts expect the popular German leader will lose national elections scheduled for Sept. 27.

Nevertheless, the former Communist Party of East Germany, now known as the Left Party, made startling gains in the three states where elections were held. Die Linke, as the Left Party is called, moved from the low single digits in the last election to more than 20 percent in all three states.

Driving the party's success was its leader, Oscar Lafontaine, a popular figure in his native Saarland but often described in the temperate German media as a “divisive” figure. Mr. Lafontaine called the outcome “an unprecendented victory in the history of German political parties.”

Of late, Lafontaine has taken blunt positions that galvanize working class grievances and older east Germans. “Tax the rich” is a campaign slogan. In a nation where the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are often indistinguishable, Lafontaine is anti-capitalist, wants to lower the retirement age, increase unemployment benefits, and offer free tuition. He’s against nuclear power, called former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair “terrorists,” and favors pulling all German missions, including those in Afghanistan, home. He wants a security alliance with Moscow. His verdict on German mainstream conservatives? “They made former Nazis into chancellors and presidents,” he said in a recent interview.

Lafontaine’s blunt talk and appeal appeared on the rise a year back, despite the fact that his party is a retooling of the East German communist machine that once took its marching orders from Moscow. But in the aftermath of the US presidential election and amid the global recession, German analysts began to pooh-pooh Lafontaine’s chances.

Lafontaine's party didn't just make progress in Thuringia in the east. For the first time the “red forces” gained a real foothold in Saarland, bordering France in the west. The party went from 2 percent to 21 percent of the state vote there, and now appears likely to be a partner in the state government.

As the votes were counted yesterday, Germany's ARD television intoned that: “In two of three state elections on Sunday there was a considerable shift in the balance of power. A change in government from conservatives to a coalition of the SPD and Left Party is possible in Saarland and Thuringia.”

Lafontaine has offered to enter into a national coalition with the SPD, and has argued that with his party's and the Green Party's support that the SPD could form the next government. But the SPD, which shifted in the 90s to a mainly centrist pro-business party that reformed its social welfare platform, has long seen a link with the communists as a poison chalice at the national level, especially in the west.

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