Dead Men Left

Friday, July 22, 2005

German Tories squeezed by rise of the "Left Party"

I know none of you care too much, what with a suspected suicide bomber/Asian with a big coat being shot in Stockwell, but yesterday’s Financial Times carried a lengthy interview with Angela Merkel, the CDU’s decidedly uncharismatic new leader. By virtue of not being Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel may well lead the German Tories to victory in the federal elections, now scheduled for September. The CDU, like the all the parties of official politics, is committed to the so-called “reform” of Germany’s substantial welfare state: think of Angela Merkel as a German Margaret Thatcher, opposed by a German Tony Blair (minus Iraq), and it would be easy to get a sense of the despair that clouds some of the German Left.

Fortunately, that has started to lift in recent months: the new Left Party, an amalgamation of the Electoral Alternative (WASG) and the PDS (former Communists) led by Oskar Lafontaine, has received quite incredible opinion poll returns in recent months, ranging between 9 and eighteen per cent nationally. Of course, the SPD leadership have played the tricks we are so familiar with in Britain: roughly, voting anything other SPD will let the Tories (or the Nazis) in.

Yet underneath Merkel’s (rather tedious) interview was a short analytical comment that indicated the CDU was feeling the pinch:

The reason for CDU concerns is a month-old populist leftwing alliance that threatens to take votes not just from Mr Schröder's Social Democrats but also from the CDU. The alliance, whose leaders include Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD finance minister, is the only party that explicitly opposes the type of economic, welfare and labour market reforms introduced by Mr Schröder and backed by the CDU.

This has found a receptive audience in the east, Germany's economically most depressed region, where the 18.5 per cent unemployment rate is double that of the west. Cuts in unemployment benefits this year have hit hardest in the east, and the anti-reform street protests that last year damaged the government's standing started in the region.

Pollsters expect the alliance - which comprises the former PDS, now renamed the Left party, and a smaller group of SPD dissidents led by Mr Lafontaine - to win around 10 per cent of votes nationwide. Most worrying for the CDU, the alliance is strongest in the east where, according to a recent poll, it is the largest party with 31 per cent of the vote. The CDU scored only 29 per cent in the region, compared with 42 per cent nationally.

Peter Lösche, politics professor at Göttingen university, says this trend shows that the alliance is winning in the east at both ends of the political spectrum - including among people who in the recent past voted for far-right parties and who pollsters had expected to back the CDU in September.

He says these eastern votes "could be decisive in depriving Ms Merkel of her preferred coalition option after the election" - a link-up with the liberal Free Democrats. It would be more difficult for this coalition - seen by economists as the most likely to implement far-reaching economic reforms - to gain a majority if, as expected, parliamentary seats have to be shared among five parties rather than four, as at present.

(CNN has more.)