BERLIN -- While German politicians stared at the calendar, wondering nervously what the May 9 elections will bring in the biggest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, with its 18 million people, media attention suddenly switched to a personal drama within the party called Die Linke (The Left). A few years ago this party or its predecessors were getting laughed off the political map. But what is happening today in that party could redraw the whole map.
Problems were brewing for a long time. Die Linke was formed when the Party of Democratic Socialism, a reformed child of the old ruling party in the German Democratic Republic, known best for its witty, mercurial leader Gregor Gysi, joined three years ago with a new West German party, formed in protest against the right turn of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and headed by the charismatic Oskar Lafontaine from little Saarland in the westernmost corner of Germany. He had been a top leader of the Social Democrats before quitting it in disgust and headed the new party on condition that the two parties joined together.
This marriage had several advantages. In the five states of the old GDR the East German party held strong positions. In one state it has now the strongest, in the others it gained second place against five to seven rivals. Even in Berlin, where western boroughs have twice as many voters as the eastern ones, it most recently won 20 percent and moved into second place; it already shares government with the Social Democrats. It thus possessed a solid base, a central headquarters (the Karl Liebknecht House in Berlin), an experienced apparatus, and a modest but relatively stable financial position. But no matter how much it molted its former feathers it was largely unable to break out of East Germany and into the larger, more decisive West German states. There was simply too much prejudice against the old GDR and any party derived from it. Its diminutive role was downplayed or ridiculed.
This changed when it joined with the smaller, poorer West German party. With the GDR stain diluted, a new name and the prestige of Oskar Lafontaine, the new party, Die Linke, got remarkable results in last September's elections, with nearly 25 percent in Oskar's home area, Saarland, 7 or 8 percent in most other West German states and 24 to 32 percent in eastern Germany. The grand total in the whole country, almost 12 percent, gave it 76 Bundestag representatives, ahead of the Greens.
Everyone in Die Linke rejoiced, or nearly everyone. One wing of the party in the eastern states feared that Oskar (as he is often called) was tilting too far leftwards. They had either joined in government coalitions with the Social Democrats (in Berlin and Brandenburg) or hoped to do so in two others after next year's state elections. They insisted that by joining in government whenever possible they could improve life for the people affected and thus strengthen the party. Some speculated about joining a national government after the national elections in 2013 or earlier if Angela Merkel's current rightist coalition falls apart.
It is now clear: the Social Democrats and Greens have only one chance of regaining government power: by swallowing their rejection of Die Linke, adding their seats to their own, thus getting over half of all Bundestag seats and forming a three-way coalition. Among Social Democrats, who took a walloping in the last elections, some voices have also been raised cautiously in this direction, and the Greens would love to get cabinet posts in a new government.
Before the new party was formed, criticism of participation in government was largely limited to a small left wing, often ridiculed as a bunch of unrealistic radicals whose talk about winning socialism only antagonized people. But then along came Oskar who moved sharply towards this same standpoint. Die Linke, he insisted, should never join a national government unless the other parties accepted certain principles: withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, no further military ventures in other countries; an end to privatization of public utilities and housing; a minimum wage; pension age lowered back to 65 (from 67); a repeal of legislation weighted heavily against the jobless.
Although some of these positions are being rediscovered by Social Democrats after their loss of 6 million votes, others would be difficult to swallow. The probable result: Die Linke remains in the opposition where it belongs, in the view of its left wing, because there it can fight the whole bankrupt system without all the compromises which would only tame and weaken it.
In the midst of this never-ending debate, Oskar suddenly withdrew from the caucus leadership position he shared with Gysi in the Bundestag. Was he giving up, quitting, was he being pushed aside? The media speculated. Then came the disturbing news: he was forced to pause because of a necessary operation for prostate cancer. He became silent for several months.
But the unfriendly media did not remain silent. The important magazine Der Spiegel reported on an alleged rendezvous of Oskar with a leading woman leader of the left wing. Gossip was spread that party leaders discussed replacing Oskar before any medical results were known. Who leaked such gossip to the media? This is still a secret.
Then came another leak to the unfriendly media. The leaders of two West German sections of Die Linke, it was reported, had written Gregor Gysi privately to assert that Dietmar Bartsch, the party's general manager and election organizer, had been acting disloyally to Lafontaine, a hint at the possible source of previous leaks. This caused general turmoil. Then Gysi surprised everyone by supporting them and calling on Bartsch to resign. That really sent the sparks flying; the very tall, handsome Bartsch from the Baltic Coast, as far from Oskar's Saarland as possible, not only geographically, was also a favorite of those leaders, the realists (or Realos), who wished to join in coalition governments and who may have viewed Bartsch as a possible new party head. The political arguments took on an increasingly sharp personal tone.
Tense days followed. Bartsch resigned from his job, but was quickly given another fairly important position in the party's Bundestag caucus. The party membership wondered what was behind all this: would it cause a split between the Realos, mostly in the East, and the more radical sections, mostly in the West? When would Oskar be back? Could he mend the wounded feelings, reflected daily in sad, angry or simply puzzled letters to the editors of the two friendlier newspapers? Above all, when would Oskar speak up and clear things up?
Then, this past weekend, he finally did. Because of his health problems, he stated, he was retiring from party leadership. He said this in a surprisingly vigorous speech in his home state of Saarland, and that is where he wants to concentrate his more limited activities. The loss on the national level of a leader so crucially important in the successes in the western states left a feeling of shock. Since Bartsch was downgraded and the aging Lothar Bisky, another party head, planned to devote himself to all-European activities, there seemed to be, except for Gysi , a worrisome vacuum.
Early Tuesday, after a long, late night session, a new agreement was reached. There would again be a double leadership of the party, a man from the West and a woman (at the top, finally) from the East. Klaus Ernst, 55, a metal worker who got a college degree, who was a leader in the 35 hour week strikes and other union protests, would help strengthen urgently needed connections with the labor movement, many of whose members were disappointed by their traditional Social Democratic representatives. The woman, Gesine Loetzsch, 48, originally a linguist, has been elected time and again by her district in the East Berlin borough of Lichtenberg, most recently - against four main opponents - with an unbeatable 47.5 percent of the votes. From 2002 until 2005 she and one other woman held the only two party seats in the Bundestag and had to overcome giant odds and maintain dignity and composure against daily insults. Her courage is still honored, and this certainly helped win her the new leadership job.
In a TV interview, harassed by the host (unfriendly as usual with leaders of Die Linke), she kept her cool and said that she would now work to cement all sections of the party, east, west, north and south, and step up the fight against widespread hardship and attacks against working people and the jobless. The economic crisis is by no means overcome in Germany, and the May elections in the nation's largest state will be of crucial importance in resisting the rough plans of the right-wing government. Oskar Lafontaine has said his health will permit him to help out. It remains to be seen whether Die Linke can overcome its past differences, at least enough to join in this big new test.
Photo: Oskar Lafontaine at a 2007 election rally. Pujanak/CC