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A lot is at stake in this weekend's leadership elections. If Die Linke does not manage to overcome internal divisions, the anti-austerity movement in Europe will be weakened.

No question: Die Linke should be doing a lot better than it is. All over Europe, left and far-left parties are making advances – in France, in the Netherlands, and most spectacularly in Greece. In Germany, however, die Linke has been losing voters in the past few elections: They lost 3 to 5 percentage points in North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein, and in Berlin, where they had been ruling in a coalition with the Social Democrats for almost ten years, they were kicked out of government last year. Five years ago, things had looked a lot more promising.

The party was founded when two left parties, one based in the West and one in the East, merged to form Die Linke (“The Left”): WASG and PDS (the successor to the former East German ruling party SED). WASG, based in the West, drew its strength from the fact that it was the only left party after Gerhard Schröder's SPD had moved to the right and tried to introduce a package of aggressive neoliberal reforms, dubbed “Agenda 2010”. The former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine became its charismatic and eloquent leader (As Gerhard Schröder's minister in the late 1990s, he wanted to pursue a Keynesian economic policy, strengthening demand and protecting workers' rights. He was soon rid of his job). After the new party was founded in 2007, Die Linke could boast a succession of impressive regional election victories. In the General Election in 2009 it gained close to 12 per cent of the vote, becoming the fourth biggest party in the German parliament. This success was in no small measure due to the fact that it is the only parliamentary party that challenges the neoliberal consensus (the Greens, formerly a viable left alternative, had discredited itself in the eyes of many by signing up to Schröder's neoliberal reforms).

Although the party comprises a host of different movements and tendencies – anti-capitalist, communist, Keynesian, reformist – its policies have been broadly progressive. Importantly, it has convincing answers to the financial crisis and is a leading critic of the European elite's obsession with austerity and its wrong-headed solutions to the financial crisis: It calls for more banking regulations, for the direct supply of credit to European nations through the European Central Bank, a hair cut for indebted countries, and a capital levy.

But for about two years, the party has been plagued by deep divisions: conflicts over the direction in which the party should move, and an eternal leadership problem. The relationship to the Social Democrats is one of the main points of contention. Reformers in the East say that a coalition with the SPD must remain a possibility, whereas their more leftist Western opponents see the break from Schröder's neoliberal policies as the reason for the party's existence, and therefore oppose a more friendly approach to the Social Democrats. The most prominent reformer is Dietmar Bartsch, a popular figure in the East and candidate for the position of co-chair (the position is going to be occupied by two people, one of which must be a woman). In the West, however, his election could prompt a lot of members to leave the party. In light of the fact that in contrast to the Western regions, Die Linke is doing pretty well in the East, some favour a break-up into the old parties. The arguments are bitter and bad-tempered, and the personalisation of the conflict contributes to the loss of credibility in the eyes of the public – especially since the mainstream media enjoy few things as much as a bust-up between leftie party leaders.

Although Bartsch is expected to do well, the outcome of the election is uncertain – ten candidates have put themselves forward. Whoever is elected, the most important thing for the new leadership will be to overcome internal divisions and focus on the fight against austerity. Gregor Gysi, another leading party figure, said this week that Die Linke has to make a new start or otherwise it will end “in desaster, possible even in a split”. This would also be disastrous for the wider European left. The last thing Europe needs is a further weakening of an anti-austerity party, as the signs increase that the economy is going into meltdown.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.

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