Letter from Berlin: ‘Left Party Lite’ Woos Middle Class

Despite the crisis of global capitalism, Germany’s far-left Left Party has failed to reap the benefit in opinion polls. Now the party is trying to soften its policies and move toward the center in a bid to attract more middle class voters.

For years Germany’s far-left Left Party stood outside the political consensus, happy to attack the scourge of capitalism and score political points by deriding the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) for turning their backs on their original working-class base.

Now that capitalism is in a deep state of crisis, with governments across the world bailing out companies and banks on what seems like a daily basis, one would think that the far-left party would be in a prime position to reap some electoral benefit. After all, this is a party that in recent months has sought to attract new members by holding readings from anti-capitalist tracts by Karl Marx.

Yet with Germany facing numerous state elections and a federal election in September things don’t seem to be going their way. In fact, the opinion poll numbers for the Left Party — which was formed in 2007 after a merger of the successor party to the East German communists, left-wing groups in western Germany and disaffected former SPD voters — have even dipped slightly since the onset of the crisis. At the same time, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) — a party whose fortunes one might have exptected to wane — is actually soaring ahead in opinion polls. And while voters may be disaffected by the constant bickering between the two parties in Berlin’s ruling grand coalition, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the Left Party is far from cutting inroads into their support bases.

And yet 2009 was supposed to be the year the Left Party took its rightful place on the political stage in Germany. The party is already firmly established in state parliaments in the states that belonged to the former East Germany and its ambition for this year was to finally make significant inroads in the west. Part of the plan is to persuade the SPD to change its mind about going into coalition in the state parliaments in western Germany and eventually at a federal level, something that has long been taboo because of the Left Party’s links to the successor party to East Germany’s SED Communist Party.

Then came along the financial crisis. Instead of buoying the Left Party, the crisis has allowed the government to steal the show as it usurps the leftists’ policy platforms and the FDP to soar ahead in public opinion polls, rising from 13 percent back in October 2008 to 17 percent in March 2009.

Party leaders Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi say that part of the problem is that in times of crisis, people look for security rather than for political experiments. And, Gysi argues, the crisis “has not really hit people yet.”

However, what makes it really difficult for the Left Party to stand out in the crowd is that almost all the political parties are rapidly diving leftwards in the face of the economic turmoil. How, for example, does the party make it clear that it had long been in favor of the state ownership of firms, if conservative Chancellor Merkel is suddenly at the vanguard of state intervention? In reality, it can’t. One of the party’s leading figures Lothar Bisky is warning the party against gleefully saying “I told you so,” saying it should instead offer “sensible alternatives.”

The task facing the Left Party is that it has to broaden its appeal and convince voters that, far from being a party of protest, it is one capable of governing. The leaders have come up with an election program called “Consistently Realistic,” designed to dispel any doubts about the party’s political reliability. Step one is toning down the calls for a world revolution from people in the party who used to belong to fringe communist groups. It’s these class warriors who have tended to shape the party’s negative image in western Germany so far.

Softer Positions on NATO and Welfare

Now the party is determined to complete its political makeover and transform it into ballot box dividends. Officials at the national party headquarters in Berlin have presented every single person working on the election campaign with a red folder crammed full with strategy papers, party programs and pages and pages of guidelines on how to behave. They range from banal instructions for answering the phone when someone calls, to directions on what to wear and how to act at the party’s information stands. This includes not getting into shouting matches about the party’s controversial past — and not taking drugs. The party has also hired a media consultant to help Left Party candidates in the European Parliament elections in June perform in front of television cameras. Her advice: “Smile more.”

In the party’s manifesto for September’s federal elections there is little that would appeal to those with a hankering for the communist past or a yearning for a socialist utopia. Rather, the Left Party is trying to present itself as the natural home for all left-wing pragmatists. It seems that the party is slowly trying to edge its way toward the political center. Gone are calls for shutting down NATO, now it is merely to be revamped. While the call for a withdrawal of German forces from Afghanistan is still there, this is now something that could be done in stages. The Left Party is no longer calling for all companies to be nationalized. In the program Lafontaine says that the case of Deutsche Bahn shows that even when companies are partially owned by the state “it doesn’t automatically mean better conditions for workers.”

Even when it comes to the party’s core issue of social welfare, it has softened its position. While the Left Party has long voiced its opposition to the controversial social welfare package known as Hartz IV that reduced government benefits for the longterm jobless, now it is merely promising voters that it would raise the amount from €351 ($476) a month to €500 ($678) and get rid of many of the obligations linked to the benefits.

The move toward a “Left Party lite” has been prompted by internal reports that looked at the party’s voter base. It concluded that its core clientele — the unemployed and blue collar workers — would only give the party an average of between 8 and 10 percent across the country. However, there are huge differences in its performance in the east and west. While the Left Party has broad appeal as a mainstream party in the former East Germany, where it is even attractive to the middle classes, in the West it still largely appeals to protest voters. If the party wants to grow further and break that important 10 percent barrier then it has to offer something a bit more than just a harbor for the disaffected and those on the margins of society.

No One Likes Grumpy Know-it-Alls

Bisky has warned the party faithful that they can’t expect to attract many more voters away from the SPD. Those who were appalled by the welfare reforms implemented under previous Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have probably long left the Social Democrats. The Left Party analysts see the greatest potential in both those who don’t usually vote and in middle class voters who are fearful of downward social mobility.

It is these bourgeois milieus that have become the focus of the new soft and cuddly Left Party. And the party knows that grumpy know-it-alls who harp on about having seen the crisis coming are almost as unattractive as diehard communists to these voters.

Lafontaine, who in the past has had a tendency toward populist rhetoric, is even trying out some new moderate catchphrases to entice these voters. He now uses terms like “democratic market economy,” which means giving workers a say in big companies. This sounds a lot less aggressive than talkng about the fight between “democratic socialism” and “casino capitalism.”

However, the softening of the party line is not going unopposed. Last Tuesday, when the party’s parliamentary group met, concerns were voiced that the discussion about Hartz IV could see the party losing credibility. Around 500 party members have now formed a group to push for the party to maintain the policy of getting rid of Hartz IV compeletely.

To combat this kind of breaking of ranks and to try to keep what some in the party have termed the “10 percent of nutters” in check, the Left Party campaign managers have come up with a new disciplinary instrument. Headquarters are keeping a “name and shame” list for those who do not act properly during the campaign or who don’t stick to the party’s brand new line.

Reporting by Markus Deggerich

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,615237,00.html

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