Germany's liberals won't just get along

BERLIN, Germany — The moderator at Tuesday night’s forum returned, again and again, to the same question. Turning to the candidates representing the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Left Party, she asked them why it was that their parties were refusing to work with one another on the national level.

Believe it or not, that's about as lively as this year's elections have gotten, even in the Berlin parliamentary district in question — the immigrant-heavy and economically-laggard Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

Germany is plodding through the most lackluster election of its modern history, a situation that has more than a little to do with the willfully curious status of the Left Party, a new political grouping comprised of the reformed remnants of the ruling East German Communist Party and other Germans whose utopian longings weren’t fulfilled by the sober promises of the center-left SPD. The Left is expected to earn more than 10 percent of the vote Sept. 27, but, according to the other parties and some of its own members, is currently unfit to participate in governing.

It’s a judgment that has contorted the German political landscape into ungainly form. As currently comprised, the political sympathies of the German population are just about evenly divided between a block of left-of-center parties (SPD, the Left, the Greens) and two center-right parties (Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the Free Democrats.) What would seem to have had the makings of a vigorous campaign, though, has been anything but. With the Left ostracized, the other parties have refused to commit to their natural left-right groupings. The result has been a campaign that hasn’t offered clear alternative visions for the country and has instead preordained that Merkel will regain the chancellery, if not the margin by which she will secure it. So, again, why is the Left Party on the sidelines? If the candidates from Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg are any indication, it’s not because of domestic policy. The SPD’s Bjoern Boehning and the Left’s Halina Wawzyniak agreed with one another that Germany needs to introduce a minimum wage; that the German national railway shouldn’t be sold off to private investors; that the amount of money that welfare recipients receive needs to be increased, as does the tax rate of the rich.

On the other had, the forum offered plenty of indications why cooperation between the SPD and the Left is fraught with tension. The second question from the audience came from someone who wanted to know what Wawzyniak thought about high-ranking Left Party members who used to be functionaries in the communist East German government. Indeed, many Germans still have raw emotional wounds that were inflicted by the former East German communists who comprise the majority of the Left Party. Traditional SPD members have been among the most reluctant to forgive and forget, as it was their party that suffered among the harshest mistreatment in the early days of communist East Germany. One audience member, who was escorted out for being too loud, spent the majority of the debate outside the hall loudly insulting the security guard for his Eastern German upbringing, pointedly asking about his collaboration with the communist government and its notorious intelligence services.

Brushing aside the insults, the Left Party vows that it’s here to stay. Since its creation three years ago, the party has attracted many disaffected voters among the lower and middle classes who never enjoyed the benefits of the country’s recent economic growth. Left Party politicians make great hay of the evident rising inequality in Germany and the country’s stagnating wages. Over the past year, the party has also been reaping the benefits of its sustained criticism of the institutions that lay at the center of the financial crisis.

Moreover, it has proven on the state level in eastern Germany that it can govern competently together with the SPD. The Left Party's preparedness in the East to bend ideologically for the sake of achieving practical goals like balanced budgets convinced voters in western Germany to vote for it in state elections earlier this year in ever-higher numbers.

Indeed, the SPD candidate Boenning admitted that likely it’s only a matter of time until the Social Democrats come to terms with the Left. He even explicitly pointed to the next federal election in 2013 as a deadline by which the Left Party would eschew its adolescent utopian posturing and the SPD would temper its holier-than-thou vanity. After all, as the current election cycle has proven, it may only be through cooperation with the Left that the SPD — so proud of its status as Germany’s oldest major party — ever stands a chance of regaining the chancellery. The only official hurdle to cooperation right now is the Left Party’s foreign policy platform, with its populist anti-EU tones and demand for an immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. The Left Party leadership has already suggested that it will be willing to moderate those positions for the sake of assuming a role in national leadership, even at the expense of turning away some of the more fervent members of their base.

On Tuesday night it was the Green Party’s Hans-Christian Stroebele, the incumbent parliamentarian from Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and one of the few members of the Bundestag with a reputation for offering straight talk, who set aside the weightless coalition speculations of his competitors from the SPD and the Left Party. When the moderator asked the 70-year-old Stroebele “why Germany shouldn’t be governed by a left-of-center government comprised of the SPD, the Left and the Greens, if that’s in fact what they vote for?,” his white eyebrows furrowed in an expression of pained pathos before he offered his answer. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I can just say that I truly regret that we won’t do it.”

It was the response that earned the longest, sustained applause of the night.