Germany: Another step toward left unity

BERLIN — There was virtually untroubled joy in September, when the new “Left,” consisting of two cooperating parties, received 4.2 million votes, 8.7 percent of the total, enabling it to send the unprecedented number of 54 representatives to the Bundestag. But the road to unity of the two had many bumps to overcome, and the weekend congress of the Left Party-PDS in Dresden aimed at overcoming many of them. The going was not always smooth, but a big step forward was taken all the same.

The Dresden gathering involved one party to the desired unification, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which had re-christened itself “The Left” (or, in the East, “The Left-PDS”), a step demanded by the other party, the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG), if it were to agree to support a single slate in the past elections.

Up till now, this unity for one slate had been basically an election strategy, a very successful one, as it turned out, for it led to the large united caucus in the Bundestag. But from the beginning the ultimate aim was to form a single party, incorporating the PDS, now called the Left Party or Left Party-PDS, with its firmly-established apparatus and strong voting support in East Germany (about 25 percent), and the newer, smaller, largely West German WASG, with its angry union men and women, its disgruntled Social Democrats, and an assortment of left-wing groupings. Both parties are vital ingredients.

In early December, key leaders of both sides signed an agreement on complete unification by July 2007. The main function of the Dresden Congress was to approve this agreement. It did just that, with enthusiasm, by and large, for this should firmly establish a strong left opposition on the German political map. Several top leaders of the WASG, including its very popular spokesperson Oskar Lafontaine, head of the Social Democratic Party until he quit in disgust at its turn to the right, were given a very warm welcome in Dresden.

But the bumps in the process cannot be overlooked; some could be quite hazardous. According to German electoral law, if two parts of one electoral slate oppose each other in even a single state election, then their joint presence in the Bundestag must be ended. And the small but persistent WASG group in the city-state of Berlin, with about 800 members, wants to do just that. In next year’s state election it wants to oppose the Left-PDS, as this party is called in Berlin, where it has 10,000 members. If the WASG members stick to this position they could scuttle the entire unification plan in all Germany. A somewhat similar situation threatens in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

A big policy debate is involved. Those are the only two states where the Left-PDS is in a ruling coalition, in both cases together with the Social Democrats. Especially in Berlin, as part of the government, the PDS has been able to fight through a number of improvements like cut-price tickets on public transportation and cheap theater tickets for the unemployed or for keeping some state-owned enterprises like child care centers and public transportation from being privatized. But it was also forced to join in many unpopular decisions aimed at balancing the budget of the bankrupt city: increasing hours and cutting wages of city employees, for example.

The 800 WASG members, or most of them, oppose such compromises and want the Left-PDS to quit the coalition government if they are to support it next year. The PDS leaders say this would lead to a far more conservative government in the city with far worse conditions. Many personal animosities are also involved; some WASG members had quit the PDS because of its position on making compromises.

Complicating the problem is the fact that within the Left-PDS, many members also oppose membership in coalitions with the Social Democrats, who were responsible for so many harsh laws during their government years with the Greens from 1998 until this fall, and who are evidently continuing the same anti-labor, anti-jobless, anti-pensioner policies with their new right-wing partners led by Angela Merkel.

Leaders of the Left-PDS like Gregor Gysi and its chairman, Lothar Bisky, seem to be speculating on the unified new “Left” party joining with Social Democrats and perhaps the Greens in a new “socially-minded” German government after the 2009 elections — or before then if the present “grand coalition” falls apart. There is a definite split between those who say we should “get along as well as possible under the prevailing circumstances in Germany, improving conditions where we can — and when possible from government positions” while others, basically the left-wingers, say we must continue fighting against such “prevailing circumstances,” in other words, fight for improvements but also keep fighting capitalism, which can never solve basic problems.

This division is not between the WASG and the Left-PDS but rather within the latter, and was clearly visible at Dresden, though differences were largely patched up for the time being. Indeed, it was Lafontaine from the WASG who asked, “Since when are the Social Democrats socially-minded?” We can never join with them, he insisted, until they are willing to scrap their whole program of soaking the poor, aiding the wealthy and sending German soldiers all around the world where they don’t belong.

This issue was not and could not be resolved in Dresden, but did not lead to any serious split. There were signs of discontent, however, including calls for more transparency on the part of the leadership, which, it was said, inclines to present ready-made decisions for congresses to give their OK to, rather than debating them democratically.

The job of party manager, a key post, was assigned to Dietmar Bartsch, for example, although many held his weak strategy responsible for the party’s election disaster in 2002. He was voted in despite these reservations, but with a vote of only 64.3 percent. An even bigger embarrassment was the executive committee’s choice for party treasurer, a man, till then relatively unknown to the membership, who turned out to have had connections with the “Stasi” when working in GDR foreign trade offices. Better leadership should have made a less controversial choice. In the end, although he got 68.5 percent of the vote, he asked to have his position suspended until the records could be checked so at least temporarily to avoid further embarrassment.

Differences among the members certainly remained, but in the end many improvements were promised and positive decisions were made on issues about which everyone agreed: German soldiers must leave Afghanistan and clear out of the German base in Uzbekistan; the tuition fees soon to be charged at colleges and universities in what had been free college education must be opposed; cooperation must be sought with the many non-governmental organizations fighting on a variety of issues — globalization, the rights of labor, the unemployed, the pensioners, the environmentalists; and young members must be sought and brought into leadership. The Left-PDS already has many positions as mayor or town and city councilor, especially in eastern Germany. It must increase this number and gain more seats in coming elections in six German states in 2006, and must learn to fight for people’s rights in these positions even when financial support from the government is sharply decreased.

Above all, the two parties, the Left-PDS and the WASG, with their joint caucus of 54 seats in the Bundestag and in alliance with many a battle outside the government, must be ready for rough new attacks on the living standards of most Germans. This, it was stated many times, will cement their sense of togetherness and make complete unification by 2007 a success.