World
12:25 pm
Wed April 23, 2008

German Left Courts the Working Class

A new political party in Germany has made saving the working class and the country's welfare system rallying points for attracting votes. It has been drawing support from the mainstream parties with a radical message.

The party, Die Linke, or the Left Party, is a merger of the reformed Communist Party from East Germany and discontented former Social Democrats. One of its co-leaders, Oskar Lafontaine, says that Germany shouldn't turn its back on working people just as they are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.

Lafontaine, who has electrified crowds of supporters with his speeches and has written numerous political books, says that current German policies benefit corporations, allowing the rich to accumulate wealth while welfare benefits are being cut.

"That's immoral," he told a recent gathering of miners and their families in western Germany. "Higher income people have to contribute their fair share."

It's a message that's resonating with Germans who are casting their ballots for the far left in bigger and bigger numbers. This message is also drawing supporters from all regions of Germany who are upset with changes to the social welfare and tax systems, which critics say have hurt the poor while benefiting the well-off. Some politicians say the changes are needed to help Germany stay competitive in the global market. But many Germans are critical of the impact these changes will have on the working class and the poor.

"Globalization as it's happening now means that a small few are calling the shots all over the world, and they're forcing their way on everyone else. Capital is the driving force," says Marlis Kramer, one of the Left Party's new members. "Oskar Lafontaine is the one who has the courage to stand up to capital."

For 25 years, Kramer was a member of the Social Democrat Party and also served as a city councilor. But she left her one-time political home because of its move to the center; she says she wants to support a party with an alternate vision for Germany.

Johannes Kahrs, a Social Democratic member of parliament, has watched the Left Party drain support from his party's base.

"They see that many things are going in the wrong direction — like companies [that] are making huge profits, laying off people at the same time, [and] the CEOs get a pay rise of 30 to 40 percent," says Kahrs.

He says many Germans view these kinds of practices as a betrayal of the social market model that Germany adopted after World War II — when government, business and unions joined forces to rebuild the country's battered economy.

The Left Party's vision for society includes higher taxes for corporations, a wealth tax, re-nationalizing some privatized companies, and boosting welfare and jobless benefits. The party also wants to end all of Germany's military missions abroad.

Critics say Die Linke and Lafontaine are making promises that they could never keep and that are dangerous for Germany's economy and its relationship with allies.

On the streets of Saarbrucken, where Lafontaine used to be mayor, there's a lot of discussion about the Left Party.

"There's a yearning for a clear, understandable message and vision and that has helped the Left Party. With simple language, they connect with everyday people and offer protection against globalization," says 48-year-old Bernd Thomas who was shopping in this German city on the French border.

"They're a good pinprick for the establishment, but I wouldn't really want to see them in power."

Observers say many voters regard the Left Party as too radical to govern on a federal level. But Germany's Green Party was also considered too extreme when it burst on the scene in the early '80s. But in 1998, it entered Germany's governing coalition with the Social Democrats, where it stayed for seven years.

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Transcript

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes actor Edward Norton has a new film project. The big star isn't him, though, it's the environment.

CHADWICK: First, doesn't this sound familiar? A charismatic politician inspiring crowds with words that praise the little guy and put down big corporate interests and with promises of a better society.

BRAND: But this is not the U.S. presidential campaign. Instead, as Kyle James reports, this is Germany.

Mr. OSKAR LAFONTAINE (Co-Leader, Die Linke): (German spoken)

KYLE JAMES: In Western Germany a group of mostly miners and their families, worried about the future of the industry, is listening to speeches by members of a young political party called Die Linke, or the Left party. And this audience likes what it hears.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAMES: The star of the evening is Oskar Lafontaine, one of the co-leaders of the far left Die Linke. It's a merger of the reformed Communist Party from East Germany and discontented Social Democrats, like Lafontaine. He tells the audience what it wants to hear: that Germany shouldn't turn its back on coal mining, and then he addresses the larger problems he says are plaguing Germany, like policies that benefit corporations while welfare benefits are cut. The rich are getting richer, he says, while working people increasingly struggle to make ends meet.

Mr. LAFONTAINE: (German spoken)

JAMES: That's immoral, he says; higher income people have to contribute their fair share. It's a message that's resonating with Germans, who are casting their ballots with the far left in bigger and bigger numbers. They're upset at reforms of the country's social welfare and tax systems that have hit the poor and helped the well-off. Politicians say the reforms were needed to help Germany stay competitive on the global market. But, many see them as a betrayal of the country's traditional concern for society's weaker members. Johannes Kahrs is a Social Democratic member of parliament who's watching the left party drain support from his ranks. He doesn't like it, but he understands why it's happening.

Mr. JOHANNES KAHRS (SPD Member of Bundestag): They see that many things are going in the wrong direction, like companies making huge profits, laying off people at the same time people in sales get a pay raise of 30 or 40 percent. And they say that's unfair. That's not what Germany's social market economy is made of.

JAMES: The social market is what Germans call the cooperation model between government, business and unions that helped Germany achieve their economic miracle after World War Two.

Ms. MARLIS KRAMER (Former City Councilor; Member, Die Linke): (German spoken)

JAMES: Seventy-year-old Marlis Kramer is one of the Left party's new members. In her living room she shows off her collection of political books written by Oskar Lafontaine, who's something of a hero to her. For 25 years, she was a member of the Social Democratic party and for a while, a city councilor. But she's left her one-time political home because of its move to the center. She says she wants to support a party that has another vision for Germany.

Ms. KRAMER: (Through Translator) Globalization, as it's happening now, means that a small few are calling the shots all over the world. And they're forcing their way on everyone else. Capital is the driving force. Oskar Lafontaine is the one who has the courage to stand up to capital. He says how it can be different.

JAMES: The left party's vision for society includes higher taxes for corporations, a wealth tax, renationalizing some privatized companies, and boosting welfare and jobless benefits. The party also wants to end all of Germany's military missions abroad, including in Afghanistan. Critics call it unrealistic and dangerous for Germany's economy and relations with its allies. They say Oskar Lafontaine and Die Linke are making promises that they could never keep if they actually came to power.

(Soundbite of music)

JAMES: On the streets of Saarbrucken where Oskar Lafontaine used to be mayor, there's a good deal of support for the Left Party. Forty-eight-year-old Bernd Thomas has been shopping in this German city on the French border. He says in an increasingly complicated world people are looking for reassurance.

Mr. BERND THOMAS: (Through Translator) There's a yearning for clear understandable message and vision, and that has helped the Left Party. With simple language they connect with everyday people and offer protection against globalization. They are a good pinprick for the establishment, but I wouldn't really want to see them in power.

JAMES: Observers say the Left Party is still seen by many as too radical to govern on the federal level any time soon. But Germany's Green Party was considered radical when it burst upon the scene in the early '80s, and it ended up in a government coalition for seven years. For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.