BERLIN - The Social Democratic Party (SPD) headed by Sigmar Gabriel is in a ruling coalition here with its love-hate partner and rival, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). Instead of trying to improve its frayed, faded image as a progressive force, however, Gabriel is now calling on his party to pay even more attention to "healthy business interests" and thus "encourage the economy."
All of this worries the small left-leaning caucus within the SPD as the standing of the party itself is soon to be tested in three state elections, all in former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic).
On September 14 in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, the SPD is quite safe to win and will almost certainly continue its coalition with die Linke (the Left), which gives that party the only cabinet seats it is currently holding anywhere.
In Saxony, the first to vote on August 31, the Christian Democrats are sure to keep the strong lead they have had there since joining up with West Germany. But they probably won't reach the 50 percent mark and will need a partner. Like Merkel on the national level, they may well offer junior partnership to the SPD (in a weak third place there) whose politicians, if invited, will surely bow their heads, mumble "Yes sir" (the Saxon head of state is male) and settle gratefully into new cabinet seats in Dresden on the Elbe. Any resemblance with Dresden dolls is purely coincidental.
The most suspense will be in Thuringia, Germany's forest-rich "green lung." A partnership between the CDU and SPD has held sway there for five years, but the latter, unhappy with the marriage, may seek a divorce after the September 24 election. Though here too probably strongest, the CDU may well be too far from the needed 50 percent, thus opening the door to a coalition between the Left and the SPD - here a real sensation!
Since the poor SPD now polls only around 19 percent in Thuringia, this would mean having the Left - now at 27 percent - lustily on top in any new coupling. And that means getting the job of minister-president (like a U.S. state governor) and would make Thuringia, the land of Weimar and Jena and long the home of Goethe and Schiller, the very first Left-led state in all Germany. This is still up in the air; five years ago the Social Democrats rejected just such a solution - but later came to regret it.
The Christian Democrats are very sour about perhaps getting ushered off to the cold opposition seats in the state house for the first time since 1990. To no-one's surprise, a leading CDU-man stridently warned the SPD against the Left, "a band of Stalinists, extremists, people from the 'black bloc,' leftist lovers of violence and former Stasi spies."
Actually, the Left leader who might wind up on top in Erfurt, Thuringia's capital, is Bodo Ramelow, 58, a devout Lutheran from West Germany, once a leader in the union of bank, insurance and retail employees, and never yet seen brandishing a Molotov cocktail. Indeed, surprisingly for a Left, socialist party, he chose a peculiar, tame election slogan: "Not everything needs to be changed but we can do many things better."
On the far more earnest international stage the SPD, by no means tame, joins Merkel's CDU and the Greens in blaming Russia alone for the horrifying bloodshed in southeastern Europe. According to party chief Gabriel, "The aggressor in the Ukraine is the Russian government," and he added threateningly: "It cannot be possible for anyone to plunge another country into chaos and then go unpunished... If we accept that then the European Union isn't worth a penny."
Gabriel, who is also Economics Minister, has barred shipment of military training equipment to Russia by the giant Rheinmetall Company. The Left, the only party consistently opposed to the export of any military hardware (at which Germany now ranks third in the world), would be happy if such an arms export ban were strictly applied to the less than democratic countries lining the Persian Gulf and other bellicose customers. Also to Israel and to the Ukrainian rulers in Kiev, who get more and more support despite their bloody battering of all opposition in Donetsk and its surroundings. But Kiev, successfully using the tried and true formula, loudly labels all its opponents "terrorists."
Photo: Bodo Ramelow, top candidate of the party Die Linke, speaks with journalists in Erfurt, Thuringia. Jens Meyer/AP