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Germany's liberals won't just get along

As Sunday's election looms, the Social Democrats and the Left Party still reject national cooperation.

TV presenter Tobi Schlegel, right, and members of his team of the satire magazine "Extra 3" hold up a placard with a composite image showing a fraternal kiss betweeen Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister and Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor, and Oskar Lafontaine, left, co-leader of the Left Party, Die Linke, during an election campaign rally of the SPD in Kiel, Sept. 2, 2009. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

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.