What a difference a party on the left can have!

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, at the annual International Security Conference in Munich stepped up pressure on Germany to send more troops to Afghanistan and commit them to active fighting not only in the currently more peaceful north but in the battle-ridden south as well. US troops are in short supply.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung categorically said, “No. Not us.” Or at least, “Not just now, anyway, certainly not until October, or if at all, then only in emergencies.” He insisted, “We can’t overturn the decisions and limitations imposed by the Bundestag.”

Gates doesn’t quite understand that. His president in Washington has never given a tinker’s damn for what Congress says – on the rare occasions when it hasn’t kowtowed to him. So why should Jung worry?

Of course, basically, Defense Minister Jung wouldn’t give two euros for the Bundestag’s opinion either. And in the past the governing coalition, whether it consisted of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats or of Social Democrats and Greens, has almost always played “follow the leader” with Washington. The one exception was during the second Iraq war, when Gerhard Schroeder wanted to win the election so desperately that he suddenly began to talk like a king of peace. But even then Rumsfeld’s warriors were permitted to use every military facility in Germany – and are still using the country as its main base for the war against the Iraqis.

But this time the situation has changed. For years, the small PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) was confined almost entirely to the five eastern provinces of Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, and to some extent to Berlin. It had hardly a tiny toe hold in the far more populous ten western provinces, limiting it to the role of a rarely-needed extra in a b-movie.

But then it merged with a small but dynamic new West German party, made up largely of disgusted ex-members of the Social Democrats and Greens, who rejected the miserable anti-social, pro-corporate and “growing military readiness” positions of both their parties. Add to this mix, people’s rapidly-growing dissatisfaction with the economy. The new merged party started chalking up gains in both the west and the east.

The big fear of the four ruling parties (the fourth was the right-wing business party FDP (the Free Democrats), was that this new party, calling itself Die Linke, or The Left, might some day seep out of its east German ghetto and influence politics in the west.

And this is just what happened! Last spring it won seven seats in the city-state of Bremen. Then came Lower Saxony, where the Christian Democrats had a popular candidate. The Social Democrat got walloped – and the Left won eleven seats, creating, for the first time, a genuine opposition. In the state of Hesse (where Frankfurt/Main is located), a far more bitter battle was waged. The big news, however, was the 5.1 percent vote for the Left, just barely enough to get into the provincial parliament with seven seats, but enough to pull the bottom card from a shaky house of cards.

The next provincial elections are on February 24th in Hamburg. The polls now give the Left about ten percent. It seems almost inevitable that the Left will make it into the fourth West German legislature, with more votes coming up next year.

Jung’s tough words about obeying the will of the Bundestag and not sending more troops to Afghanistan was undoubtedly pronounced with an eye on the coming elections in Hamburg, for the word has been spreading that the Left is the only party which opposes military actions by German soldiers anywhere on the globe – a position reflecting the will of perhaps 70 percent or more of the German population.

The powerful old forces of 20th century Germany and their offspring, are striving to make Germany a world power once again – not just economically but militarily as well, and their slogan, coined by the last Social Democratic Minister of Defense, was “”the boundaries of our security requirements lie in the Hindu Kush” – in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And thus far, only the Left has said No.

Important as provincial elections can be in German politics, no one is forgetting that the next national elections are in the autumn of 2009. The Left is not untroubled by inner disputes regarding strategy and direction. One important disagreement concerns the question of joining a coalition with the Social Democrats or Greens, a policy some members reject completely. But it is unquestioned that the Left not only opposes foreign military intervention but also calls for a minimum wage, for preserving the weakening medical insurance system, for winning back free education, and saving the unemployed from compulsory, menial jobs at starvation wages. It also calls for ending discrimination against immigrant minorities. The media strive daily to suppress these facts.
Still, the worst fear of the powers-that-be are becoming reality. The Left, possibly now the third biggest party in all Germany, can no longer be ignored, and the tough-sounding rejection of Robert Gates’ demands by the Defense Minister in Munich is the clearest proof of this.