The Party of Democratic Socialism (German: Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus, PDS) was a democratic socialist political party active in Germany from 1989 to 2007. It was the legal successor to the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which ruled the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) until 1990. From 1990 through to 2005, the PDS had been seen as the left-wing "party of the East". While it achieved minimal support in western Germany, it regularly won 15% to 25% of the vote in eastern Germany, entering coalition governments (with the Social Democratic Party) in the federal states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin.
In 2005, the PDS, renamed The Left Party.PDS (Die Linkspartei.PDS), entered an electoral alliance with the western Germany-based Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG) and won 8.7% of the vote in Germany's September 2005 federal elections (more than double the 4% share achieved by the PDS alone in the 2002 election). On June 16, 2007, the two groupings merged to form a unified new party called The Left (Die Linke).
Internationally, the Left Party.PDS was a co-founder of the Party of the European Left alliance of parties and was the largest party in the European United Left–Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament.
The grassroots democracy movement that forced the dismissal of East German head of state Erich Honecker in 1989 also empowered a younger generation of reform politicians in East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party who looked to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika as their model for political change. Reformers like authors Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf and attorney Gregor Gysi, lawyer of dissidents like Robert Havemann and Rudolf Bahro, soon began to re-invent a party infamous for its rigid Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and police-state methods. By the end of 1989, the last hardline members of the party's Central Committee had resigned, followed in 1990 by 95% of the SED's 2.3 million members. A new name, "Party of Democratic Socialism", was adopted to distance the reformed party from its communist past (after a brief transitional period as the SED/PDS). By early 1990, the PDS was no longer a Marxist-Leninist party, though neo-marxist and communist minority factions continue to exist.
In state and local government
The Left Party (then the Party of Democratic Socialism) has had several years of experience as a junior coalition partner in two federal states —Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania— where it co-governed until 2006 with the Social Democratic Party. Political responsibility has burnished the Left's reputation as a pragmatic, rather than ideological party. It remains strong in local government in eastern Germany, with more than 6,500 town councillors and 64 elected mayors. The party continues to win eastern voters by emphasizing political competence and refuses to be labelled as merely a "protest party", although it certainly attracted millions of protest voters in the federal election, profiting from growing dissatisfaction with high unemployment and cutbacks in health insurance, unemployment benefits, and labor rights.
In federal elections
In the first all-German elections in 1990, the PDS won only 2.4% of the nationwide vote, but under a one-time exception to Germany's electoral law entered the Bundestag with 17 deputies led by Gysi, one of Germany's most charismatic and articulate politicians. In the 1994 election, in spite of an anti-communist "Red Socks" campaign by the then-ruling Christian Democrats aimed at scaring off eastern communist voters, the PDS increased its vote to 4.4 percent, won a plurality in four eastern districts, and re-entered the Bundestag with an enlarged caucus of 30 deputies. In 1998, the party reached the high-water mark in its fortunes by electing 37 deputies with 5.1% of the national vote, thus clearing the critical 5% threshold required for guaranteed proportional representation and full parliamentary status. The party's future seemed bright, but it suffered from a number of weaknesses, not the least of which was its dependence on Gysi, considered by supporters and critics alike as a super-star in German politics who stood in stark contrast to a colorless general membership. Gysi's resignation in 2000 after losing a policy debate with party leftists soon spelled trouble for the PDS. In the 2002 election, the party's vote sank back to 4.0%, and was able to seat only two back-benchers elected directly from their districts, Petra Pau and Gesine Lötzsch.
After the 2002 debacle, the PDS adopted a new program and re-installed a respected moderate, long-time Gysi ally Lothar Bisky, as chair. A renewed sense of self-confidence soon re-energized the party. In the 2004 elections to the European Parliament, the PDS won 6.1% of the vote nationwide, its highest total at that time in a federal election. Its electoral base in the eastern German states continued to grow, where today it ranks with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats as one of the region's three strong parties. However, low membership and voter support in Germany's western states continued to plague the party on the federal level until it formed an electoral alliance in July 2005 with the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG), a leftist faction of dissident Social Democrats and trade unionists, with the merged list being called the Left Party. In the 2005 federal election the Left Party received 8.7% of the nationwide vote and won 54 seats in the German Bundestag.
Alliance with the WASG
After marathon negotiations, the PDS and WASG agreed on terms for a combined ticket to compete in the 2005 federal elections and pledged to unify into a single left party in 2006 or 2007. According to the pact, the parties did not compete against each another in any district. Instead, WASG candidates—including the former Social Democratic leader, Oskar Lafontaine—were nominated on the PDS electoral list. To symbolize the new relationship, the PDS changed its name to The Left Party/PDS or The Left/PDS, with the letters "PDS" optional in western states where many voters still regarded the PDS as an "eastern" party.
The alliance provided a strong electoral base in the east and benefited from WASG's growing voter potential in the west. Gregor Gysi, returning to public life only months after brain surgery and two heart attacks, shared the spotlight with Lafontaine as co-leader of the party's energetic and professional campaign. Both politicians will co-chair the Left's caucus in the German Bundestag after the election.
Polls early in the summer showed the unified Left list on a "high-altitude flight," winning as much as 12 percent of the vote, and for a time it seemed possible the party would surge past the Alliance '90/The Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party and become the third-strongest force in the Bundestag. But, alarmed by the Left's unexpected rise in the polls, Germany's mainstream politicians hit back at Lafontaine and Gysi as "left populists" and "demagogues" and accused the party of flirting with neo-Nazi voters. A gaffe by Lafontaine, who described "foreign workers" as a threat in one speech early in the campaign, provided ammunition for charges that the Left was attempting to exploit German xenophobia.
Although Germany's once-powerful trade unions distanced themselves from the Left in the 2005 election, some union leaders expressed interest in cooperating with the party after the election. A number of regional trade union leaders and mid-level functionaries are active supporters.
2005 federal election outcome
At the 2005 federal election, the Left Party became the fourth-largest party in the Bundestag, with 54 Members of Parliament (MPs) (full list), ahead of the Greens (51) but behind the Free Democrats (61). Three Left Party MPs were directly elected on a constituency basis: Gregor Gysi, Gesine Lötzsch and Petra Pau, all in Eastern Berlin constituencies. In addition, 51 Left Party MPs were elected through the party list element of Germany's Additional Member System of proportional representation. These include Lothar Bisky, Katja Kipping, Oskar Lafontaine, and Paul Schäfer. Besides Lafontaine, a number of other prominent SPD defectors won election to the Bundestag on the Left Party list, including a prominent leader of Germany's Turkish minority, Hakkı Keskin, German Federal Constitutional Court justice Wolfgang Neskovic, and the former SPD leader in Baden-Württemberg, Ulrich Maurer.
When the votes were counted, the party doubled its federal vote from 1.9 million (PDS result in 2002) to more than 4 million—including an electoral breakthrough in industrial Saarland where, for the first time in a western state, it surpassed the Greens and FDP due, in large part to Lafontaine's popularity and Saarland roots. It is now the second strongest party in three states, all of them in the former GDR, (Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia) and the third strongest in four others, all but Saarland in the former GDR, (Saarland, Berlin, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). It was the only party to win over protest voters broadly across Germany's political spectrum: nearly one million Social Democratic voters defected to the Left while the Christian Democrats and Greens together lost half a million votes to the resurgent party.
Exit polls showed the Left had a unique appeal to non-voters: 390,000 Germans who refused to support any party in 2002 returned to the ballot box to vote for the Left Party. The Left's image as the last line of defense for Germany's traditional "social state" (Sozialstaat) proved to be a magnet for voters in western as well as eastern Germany.
All other established parties had ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the Left Party prior to the election (in other words, a cordon sanitaire), and refused to reconsider in the light of the closeness of the election result, which prevented either of the usual ideologically-coherent coalitions from attaining a majority. The possibility of a minority SPD-Green government tolerated by the Left Party was the closest the Left Party came to potential participation in government at this election.
2006 state election results
The Left Party suffered serious losses in the 2006 elections for the city-state government of Berlin, losing nearly half of its vote and falling to 13 percent—slightly ahead of the Greens. Berlin's popular Social Democratic mayor, Klaus Wowereit, nevertheless decided to retain the weakened party as his coalition partner.
In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Left Party suffered no serious losses and remains the third-strongest party in the state. However, it was dropped as a coalition partner by the Social Democratic premier, Harold Ringstorff, and now heads the opposition in the state assembly.
Despite its losses in Berlin, support for the Left Party/PDS and its WASG ally remain stable at about eight to ten percent of the vote. Cooperation between the two parties on a national level and in their single Bundestag delegation has been largely free of tensions. Though a minority of WASG members oppose the merger of the two parties scheduled for June 2007, it seems likely the new party—to be called simply The Left—will be on Germany's political stage before the next federal elections.
Since German reunification, the PDS has frequently been the target of suspicions that leading members were connected with East Germany's Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Shortly after the 2005 federal election, Marianne Birthler, the official in charge of the Stasi archives, accused the Left Party of harboring at least seven former Stasi informants in its newly-elected parliamentary group. At about the same time, the media revealed that Lutz Heilmann, a Left Party Bundestag deputy from the state of Schleswig-Holstein, had worked several years for the Stasi. While the first accusation proved to be false, Heilmann's connection with the Stasi remained controversial. Though Heilmann had served as a bodyguard, not as an informant or secret police officer, he violated a Left Party regulation obliging candidates to reveal past Stasi involvement. Nevertheless, the Left Party membership in Schleswig-Holstein narrowly passed a vote of confidence in favor of Heilmann, and he continues to serve in the Bundestag.
Charges of a Stasi past were also a factor in the Bundestag's decision to reject Lothar Bisky as the Left Party's candidate for the post of parliamentary vice president. Though Bisky's candidacy was supported by the Greens and by some Christian Democratic and Social Democratic leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, after two failed votes the party decided to withdraw his nomination. Five months later, the Left Party's Petra Pau was elected vice president.
In the Free State of Saxony, the chairman of the Left Party group, Peter Porsch, could lose his mandate in the Saxon parliament because of his alleged Stasi past. In May 2006, all parties represented in the parliament, except the Left Party, voted to initiate proceedings against Porsch. However, in November, the state's constitutional court dismissed the complaint against Porsch on technical grounds.
The SED had sequestered money overseas in secret accounts, including some which turned up in Liechtenstein in 2008. This was returned to the German government, as the PDS had rejected claims to overseas SED assets in 1990. The vast majority of domestic SED assets were transferred to the GDR government before unification. Legal issues over back taxes possibly owed by the PDS on former SED assets were eventually settled in 1995, when an agreement between the PDS and the Independent Commission on Property of Political Parties and Mass Organizations of the GDR was confirmed by the Berlin Administrative Court.
- A Left Party Member of the European Parliament, Feleknas Uca, was the world's only elected Yezidi politician until three were elected to the Iraqi legislature in 2005.
- The Left
- Politics of Germany
- List of political parties in Germany
- Bundestag (Federal Assembly of Germany)
- Spiegel: Magazin meldet Spur in Liechtenstein
- Franz Oswald 2002, The Party That Came Out Of The Cold War, pp69-71
- Left Party website in German
- Der Spiegel on the Founding of the Left Party (English)
- Left Party Bundestag site with profiles of deputies
- Ingo Schmidt, "The Left Opposition in Germany. Why Is the Left So Weak When So Many Are Looking for Political Alternatives?", in Monthly Review, May 2007
- Ingar Solty "The Historic Significance of the New German Left Party"
- Thompson, Peter (2005) The Crisis of the German Left. The PDS, Stalinism and the Global Economy Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford. ISBN 1-57181-543-0
- Oswald, Franz (2002). The Party That Came Out of the Cold War : The Party of Democratic Socialism in United Germany. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-97731-5
- Hough, Dan (2001). The Fall and Rise of the PDS in Eastern Germany (1st ed.). The University of Birmingham Press. ISBN 1-902459-14-8