Ghosts of Germany’s communist past return for election

August 28, 2009

kirschbaum_e- Erik Kirschbaum is a Reuters correspondent in Berlin. -

Will the party that traces its roots to Communist East Germany’s SED party that built the Berlin Wall soon be in power in a west German state?

Or is the rise of the far-left “Linke” (Left party) in western Germany to the brink of its first role as a coalition partner in a state government with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) simply a political fact-of-life now so many years after the Wall fell and the two Germanys were reunited?

Will a “red” government in Saarland scare away investors and doom the state, as its conservative state premier Peter Mueller argues in a desperate fight to his job?

Or will the new leftist alliance in Saarland be able to better tackle state’s woes, as the SPD state premier candidate Heiko Maas insists?

Depending on your Weltanschauung, that’s what Sunday’s election in three German states boils down to — an emotional debate about whether the ex “Communists” in the form of the Left party should be allowed to be part of the next Saarland government or not.

It doesn’t matter that the Left has already been in eastern state governments and will probably also be part of the next state government in the eastern state of Thuringia, which also elects a new state assembly on Sunday.

The “Cold War” has flared up again in Germany ahead of Sunday’s elections in three German states, a closely watched warm-up for the national election on Sept. 27 when Chancellor Angela Merkel will be seeking a second term.

It’s hard to explain to anyone outside Germany why the Left party has been seated in state and local governments throughout eastern Germany for the last 15 years with hardly a murmur while it was until recently an absolute taboo in western Germany. It’s also not easy to explain to some Germans, especially those born after the Cold War.

But here goes: Many western voters have until now had a knee-jerk reaction to the Left party — as well as its predecessor the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which is the direct descendent of Erich Honecker’s SED. Westerners remember the Wall, the shoot-to-kill orders, the barbed wire and the Iron Curtain that divided post-war Germany.

“It’s not a big deal in Saarland anymore,” Maas, the SPD candidate in Saarland, told me in an interview on the campaign trail in Saarbruecken this week. “The CDU is trying to make a scandal out of it.

They’ve been trying to whip up fears about ‘red-red’ for months but there hasn’t been any movement in the opinion polls. I think that shows people aren’t interested in the parties mud-slinging about coalitions. They’re tired of those games. They want political leaders to resolve their problems.”

Many eastern voters long ago realised the Left party is not the SED that built the Wall. In the east, the Left  has become the most powerful party in many regions partly due to nostalgia for East Germany but mainly due to its fighting for leftist ideals as well as standing up for the so-called “losers” of unification.

“A ‘red-red’ government would send Saarland down the tubes,” said CDU leader Mueller.  And Merkel added at a rally in Saarbruecken: “This state cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of ‘red-red’.” She does not use that line in her campaign speeches in the former Communist east, where she was raised, because she knows it would sound ridiculous to eastern ears.

The SPD rules out a “red-red” coalition with the Left party at the national level because of deep differences over foreign and economic policy. But it now says it is ready to open the door to such alliances in western states — after some painful experiences in the last few years. And Maas in Saarland could be the first to go through. The SPD will probably drop that ban on “red-red” coalitions at the national level someday as well after having abandoned it for eastern Germany in 1994.

So is it “The Commies are at the Gate in Saarland?”  Or is it just part of a democratic evolution that the renamed, reborn East German Communists are about to gain a small but important foothold in western Germany?
Tune into the Global News blog on Sunday evening for live blog coverage on the elections in the three German states.

Related Story: Merkel faces left threat in German state votes

PHOTO – Tourists take a walk along the ‘East Side Gallery’ in Berlin, a 1.3 kilometre section of the Berlin Wall that still stands. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz


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