Friday, February 1, 2008

BERLIN — A small political party made up of former communists and disgruntled Social Democrats is achieving strong gains in regional elections in Germany — in a resurgence of left-wing support that spells trouble for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Left Party, which has so far been confined to the former communist east, cleared the 5 percent hurdles needed to get into parliament in the large western states of Hesse and Lower Saxony by winning votes among unemployed people, blue-collar workers and former Social Democrat (SPD) voters.

Oskar Lafontaine, one of its two leaders, has called President Bush a “terrorist” for launching the Iraq war and praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for nationalizing power companies. He wants a steep increase in public spending on pensions, welfare benefits and education.

“The stronger the Left, the more ready the established parties will become to change their social policies,” Mr. Lafontaine told Die Tageszeitung newspaper.

“We have managed to turn Germany’s four-party system into a five-party system, partly because we have managed to reach voters the SPD can’t reach any more.”

The party has been pulling Germany’s entire political spectrum to the left over the past year by forcing the center-left Social Democrats, who share power with Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) in a grand coalition, to soften its unpopular stance on welfare reforms.

Mr. Lafontaine, a former chairman of the SPD, resigned as finance minister in 1999 after falling out with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The success of the Left Party also reflects a growing sense of social injustice among voters and is likely to deter Mrs. Merkel’s government from passing any radical reforms before the general election in 2009.

“People see that they’re not better off, that their real incomes have fallen, and that recent statistics showing an economic improvement are abstract figures that they don’t see reflected in their daily lives,” said Manfred Gullner, director of the Forsa polling institute.

Both the CDU and the SPD have been responding to that public feeling. Mrs. Merkel recently criticized the payment of six-digit bonuses to corporate executives. And the planned closure of a factory in Bochum, western Germany, by cell phone maker Nokia has proved so politically sensitive that SPD leader Kurt Beck announced: “I’m not having a Nokia in my house anymore.”

Bernhard Wessels, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University, said: “Many who voted for the Left Party are unemployed, or badly off blue-collar workers. They’re disenchanted. They saw the welfare reforms of 2003 and 2004 as a lurch to the right and decided to abandon the SPD in disgust.”

In a bid to woo back those voters, the SPD has embarked on leftward shift under Mr. Beck, who is pushing for a reversal of key welfare cuts that alienated millions of its supporters and led to a string of election defeats.

The SPD’s relative success on Sunday in Hesse, where it jumped 7.6 points to 36.7 percent after fighting a left-wing campaign, is likely to reinforce that shift, and could fuel tension within Mrs. Merkel’s government, analysts said.

“There is little doubt that the SPD will interpret the success in Hesse as a confirmation of its new course and push even harder for a minimum wage and a reversal of some of the labor market reforms,” Goldman Sachs analyst Dirk Schumacher said in a research note.

It’s not just the SPD that has gone soft on reforms. Mrs. Merkel’s CDU has been encroaching on traditional SPD ground on the environment and family policy, offering generous new payouts to parents, for example.

Mrs. Merkel has long since dropped the radical tax and labor policies with which she fought the 2005 election. The woman once dubbed “Germany’s Iron Lady” now likes to stress that the aged, the weak and the sick must partake in the country’s economic recovery.

The trend is worrying German business. “The conservatives must stop allowing Oskar Lafontaine to dictate their agenda,” said Patrick Adenauer, president of the Association of Independent Business Managers.

The Left Party was formed last year through the merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the Communist party that ruled East Germany, with a western political group made up largely of former SPD members.

The PDS had become well established in eastern Germany since unification in 1990 and now the merged party is represented in nine of Germany’s 16 states, and regularly scores 27 to 28 percent in opinion polls in eastern Germany. Its support in the west is far smaller, at around 5 percent.

One of the Left Party’s leaders in Lower Saxony, Manfred Sohn, has called for a tax on private swimming pools and wrote in an article for a left-wing newspaper two years ago: “For 40 years East Germany was the more peaceful and socially just part of Germany.”

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