10:12 am - Thursday November 5, 2015

Germany’s Left Party Secures First State Governorship

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BERLIN—A quarter-of-a-century after the Berlin Wall fell, the successor to East Germany’s ruling party claimed its biggest political prize on Friday when it secured its first state governorship in the reunified country.

The election of The Left party’s Bodo Ramelow as premier of Thuringia, with a razor-thin majority of one vote in the 91-seat state assembly, could become a template for Germany and herald a shift to the left after almost a decade of conservative-led national governments, analysts and politicians said.

Critics of The Left party say it hasn’t yet shed its Communist-era heritage. The mass-circulation Bild newspaper Friday published photos of people killed while attempting escape in East Germany and asked: “Have you already forgotten these dead?”

President Joachim Gauck, a former East German dissident, has expressed public concern about The Left assuming power, questioning whether it “can be fully trusted” to have distanced itself from its past

Germany’s political landscape has continued to fracture since the emergence of the Green Party on the national stage in the 1980s. It was followed by the Left party in the past decade and, last year, the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany, which isn’t represented in the federal parliament but won seats at this year’s European elections and in several regional assemblies, including Thuringia.

This trend has made it increasingly difficult for the two dominant parties, the conservative Christian Democrats and the left-leaning Social Democrats, to form coalitions on their own. They have joined forces in national-unity governments under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel twice since 2005.

Mr. Ramelow’s selection appears to have broken this mold.

While Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats finished first in the state election in October, the party failed to find a coalition partner, allowing the former Communists, who polled second, to clinch an alliance with the Greens and the diminished Social Democrats. This was made possible by the conservatives’ refusal to woo the 11 euroskeptic lawmakers.

While the Social Democrats have governed with The Left party at the regional level before, they have never taken a junior position and so far have ruled out such an alliance at the national level, mainly because of deep disagreements on foreign policy.

But many analysts see such a pact as the only way for the Social Democrats to lead another national government again. While the election in Thuringia doesn’t endanger Ms. Merkel’s current coalition, it could set the tone for the next general election in 2017.

“The coalition in Thuringia is a test-run for the cooperation between the parties. If it runs well, it offers an opportunity for 2017,” said Tilman Mayer, professor for political science at the University of Bonn. “We have to prepare for such an alliance now more than ever,” he said, since the Social Democrats fail to secure more than 25% or 26% in polls.

The Left party, which polls about 9% nationwide and is the largest opposition party in the lower house, has called for repairing ties with Russia, is wary of close European integration and has criticized Germany’s Western military alliances.

Ms. Merkel, an eastern German, earlier this year urged the Social Democrats to resist helping The Left to power. “Karl Marx is to be carried into the offices of the state government. That just cannot be,” she said at an election rally in the town of Apolda in September.

Mr. Ramelow, who has close ties with labor unions and was raised in western Germany, stands for the type of Left party leaders the Social Democrats might find it easier to do business with at the national level.

Such a linkup, however, faces opposition. Some 56% of Germans are uncomfortable with The Left party joining the federal government. Even so, 40% said the time is ripe for such a step, according to a poll of 1,002 people conducted by Infratest dimap for public broadcaster ARD this past week.

Yasmin Fahimi, general secretary of the Social Democrats, said Friday that the situation in Thuringia would have no national implications. Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Greens’ floor leader, said the move only allows a “change in policy in Thuringia” but doesn’t serve as a template for national politics.

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