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German Left Courts the Working Class

Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine protests with miners against the closure of mines in Saarbrucken, Germany, on March 5.
Torsten Silz / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine protests with miners against the closure of mines in Saarbrucken, Germany, on March 5.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kyle James