The German left is facing a historic chance. On 16 June, we will found a strong all-German party.
Germany badly needs such a force to fight the unprecedented dismantling of the German welfare state and to resist sending German troops on military missions abroad.
We need to build broad alliances against the threat of fascism, and to press – 16 years after unification – for equal pay and equal living conditions in the east and west of the country.
The possibility of a united left emerged from the PDS – a pluralistic, left wing socialist party with strong influence in the east and weak positions in the west of the country, and the WASG – originally a protest movement of disappointed left wing social democrats, trade unionists and other activists against former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s deeply anti-social policies.
This movement, strong mainly in the west of Germany, started to transform into a party in January 2005. The WASG made a breakthrough in the Bremen state elections last month when they won 8.4 percent of the vote and entered a west German state parliament for the first time.
The idea of a united left was met with enormous expectations. Votes went up and both parties saw the influx of several thousand new members.
In the national election of September 2005 the parties together won 8.7 percent of the vote and 53 seats, much more than any party to the left of the social democrats in Germany since the Second World War.
The PDS – which changed its name to the Linkspartei (Left Party) to help spread the appeal to west Germany – has about 60,000 members in the new federal states of former East Germany.
It is a sort of people’s party, with voters in all parts of the population. It has strong groups of deputies in the parliaments of all six new eastern states – receiving between 13 and 28 percent of the vote. In four states it is the second strongest party behind the conservative CDU or the social democratic SPD.
It has around 6,500 councillors in cities, towns and counties of East Germany.
The plan to merge with the WASG into a strong all-German left party has been supported by 96.9 percent of the 82.6 percent members taking part in a recent party referendum. Many hope the new party will address how to overcome the gap between the two parts of the country.
Germany is in many respects still a divided society. Wages and pensions in the east have been stagnating for years and are currently 80-85 percent of the western level.
Even though the economy in the eastern part is growing slightly faster than in the west, the main demand of the employers in the east is to preserve the local “advantage” of lower pay.
Keeping eastern Germany a low wage area has not reduced the unemployment rate, which is still double that of west Germany.
Young, energetic people are heading west in big numbers, looking for jobs and normal wages, among them many young women, well-trained in the former East Germany. The population in the east is ageing at a much faster rate. Towns and villages are emptying – the threat of becoming Germany’s poor house is very real.
These are some of the problems that form the focus of our deputies in parliament.
We have fought to put them on the agenda again and again – something none of the other parties have done. One modest success after a year of fighting was pushing through equal benefits for the longterm unemployed.
The group pressed the other parties to deal with such issues as a minimum wage, more public jobs, a nursery place for every child, more state support for underdeveloped regions – problems that are of interest across Germany. There is a lot more work for us to do and many struggles ahead for the left.
Helmut Ettinger is a member of the PDS peace and international policy working group. For more background to the debates around Die Linke go to » Can the German left unite against neoliberalism?