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Left Party Celebrates While Greens Quarrel
By Florian Gathmann and Björn Hengst
Left Party leaders Lothar Bisky (l), Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine (r) on election night.
The Left Party was celebrating its historic election result on Sunday night but for the Greens there was disappointment. While the Left Party's position as a protest party seems to have gone down well with voters, the Greens had to constantly explain which party they wanted to govern with.
Even the illuminated red supermarket sign above their heads matched their party color. On Sunday evening Oskar Lafontaine, Gregor Gysi, Lothar Bisky and Klaus Ernst gathered for a moment outside the party venue in renovated brewery in the trendy Berlin district of Prenzlauerberg and celebrated another victory for their Left Party. Just a few meters away their supporters were cheering the election projections as they came in, while the four top party bosses beamed like schoolboys, flinging their arms around each others necks and patting their arms. "In Bavaria we are over 6 percent," Ernst, who hails from the southern state, says to Lafontaine. The party boss pretends to be baffled. "What?" says Lafontaine, before they all laugh and head into the election party.
The Left Party have a lot to laugh about this election night. They have reached double digits, securing 12.4 percent of the vote, a marked improvement on their 2005 result of 8.7 percent. And they also did well in state elections in Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. "We have broken the sound barrier and have double digits," Bisky told the cheering supporters while Gysi described the result as "historic."
'The SPD Needs a Rebellion'
Lafontaine allowed his fellow party leaders to speak first. For almost 10 minutes he stood there speechless on the podium. He looked left and right and straight ahead and the smile never once left his face. Laftontaine knows that the Left Party's triumph is above all his own success. "We want the left-wing camp to be stronger," Lafontaine tells the jostling crowd of supporters -- but for that there first of all has to be a left-wing camp.
It is an exhortation to the SPD and Gysi was even clearer in his choice of words. "The SPD now needs a rebellion and it has to make itself social democratic."
For the Left Party this election night is a clear affirmation of their campaign: They have been re-elected to parliament with a clear growth in support while the SPD has suffered a historic defeat. That means that the Left Party will expect a clear swing to the left in the SPD before they will countenance cooperating with it in the future. "We will stay on our path, the SPD has to change its path," said the party's deputy leader, Ernst, who is a former Social Democrat. Otherwise the SPD faces even further losses in the future, he warned. "Then at some stage they will drop to 15 percent and the last one to leave can turn out the light," he said. Ernst is certain that the SPD will soon draw the necessary consequences from the election debacle: "This will lead to a change of leadership and direction in the SPD." It is clear what kind of change in direction the Left Party wants to see the Social Democrats go in, they have said it often enough -- move away from the Hartz IV welfare reforms introduced under the previous SPD-Green coalition and an end to the Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan.
There was still a lot of applause left for one of the great figures from the SPD's past. The Left Party wants to "dare more democracy," Lafontaine said, referring to the famous quote by former Chancellor Willy Brandt -- but that is only possible with a "new economic and social order."
Mixed Result for the Greens
A bit further to the southeast of the city, the mood is a lot less euphoric at a former post office where the Greens are holding their election party. And it's not due to low turnout at the event. The Greens are still a strong party in Berlin, and have been during this election. In the neighboring election district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, veteran Green Hans-Christian Ströbele just won his third direct mandate in first-past-the-poll voting.
Nationwide, the Greens also performed well on Sunday -- delivering the best election result in the party's history, garnering double-digit support for the first time. But as party chair Claudia Roth stepped onto the stage just before 7 p.m., she said: "That's bitter." Standing next to her was her party co-chief, Cem Özdemir, who was looking rather small -- after losing a direct mandate by a thin margin to a CDU candidate in Stuttgart. But what is more bitter for his party is that it failed to achieve two of its top election goals: hindering the creation of a government led by the conservatives and the FDP and becoming the third-biggest party in Germany's parliament.
Instead, Roth and Özdemir must look on as Guido Westerwelle's FDP not only enters into a government as Merkel's junior partner, but also as it far surpasses the Greens in size in the next parliament. The Left Party will also be stronger than the Greens, which has fallen to the rank of fifth-largest party in the Bundestag.
The Green Party's leading candidates -- Renate Künast and Jürgen Trittin -- were the first main candidates to appear publicly on Sunday. By then, though, it was already clear that Merkel's conservatives and the FDP had won the election, and as the pair approached the stage with camera crews and photographers in their wake, one could have easily mistaken it for a funeral procession. Nevertheless, the pair gave a lively address to their supporters.
"We have something to offer and that's why we have been elected into the Bundestag with double-digit support," Künast said. Trittin, who will now lead the party together with Künast in parliament, said, "we have made grandious gains of over 25 percent" over Greens' showing during the 2005 election, which should help to make up for some of the dampened enthusiasm.
For some, though, it wasn't enough. "This was a crappy result for us," one Green said. But another said, "At least the front lines of German politics have become clear again."
Will Future See 'Red-Red-Green' or 'Jamaica?'
Not for the Greens, though. In the next few years, the party will have to come up with a strategy for getting back into the government. With a moribund SPD, it will be impossible in the near future for the parties to govern together as they did under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and many are looking to the Left Party. "But that doesn't mean they will automatically go to the left camp," said one strategist. The Green Party's more mainstream "realo" politicians will likely make increasing overtures towards Merkel's conservatives. Indeed, the Greens govern together with the Christian Democrats as the junior partner in Hamburg. The party might also be willing to work with the FDP in what is referred to in Germany as a "Jamaica coalition" because the colors affiliated with the parties are the same as those on the Jamaican flag.
On the other end of the Green political spectrum, even leftists like Trittin are skeptical about working together with the Left Party and the SPD in a government. "I don't see a willingness on their part," he said. "The Left Party has been strengthened as a protest party." Looking to the state of Thuringia, where recent election results have opened the door to the possibility of a Left Party-SPD-Green "red-red-green" government coalition, however, Trittin spoke of a "growing responsibility for other majorities."
After Sunday's vote, Bodo Ramelow, the Left Party's leading candidate in the state of Thuringia, believes that a red-red-green government in the state has even better prospects. The federal election results "will have to influence the sense of reality in the SPD and the Greens in order to be able to build other types of majorities in the parliament," said Ramelow.
But it's also an open question -- wh
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Social Democrats in Crisis
Election Results Pose Hard Leadership Questions
By Veit Medick
Biggest Loss: The Social Democrats are asking whether their leaders -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) and Franz Müntefering -- are to blame.
Election results for Germany's Social Democrats are the worst in the party's post-WWII history. Leading candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier and party boss Franz Müntefering say they want to lead the SPD into forceful opposition. But inside the party questions are already being asked about who might replace them.
The night in which Germany's Social Democrats became a shadow of their former selves started off with a loud cheer. Projections being screened at the party headquarters in Willy Brandt House in Berlin were showing that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- their main opposition -- was sitting on a miserly 27.5 percent. Supporters in the atrium of the party headquarters cheered exuberantly -- but then when the numbers for the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, were added to the CDU's own numbers, they began to groan instead, horrified.
6 PhotosPhoto Gallery: The Losers
Together the Union, as the two parties are known together, had 34 percent. And then their own numbers: Projections for the Social Democrats (SPD) had the party at 23 percent of the vote.
The black-yellow coalition -- the colors of the CDU are black and those of their desired coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are yellow -- had the majority. The rest was irrelevant. And the first guests began to leave.
A Historic Loss, A 'Bitter Day' For Social Democracy
The German federal elections of 2009 have delivered a historic loss to the SPD. They party is down by almost 11 percent its their 2005 election results -- the most precipitous loss incurred by any party this election. The SPD will lose almost one-third of its members in parliament. The SPD remains stronger than the Left Party and the Greens together, but just barely. And the party's claim to center-left leadership is now threatened with extinction. "We have been bombed right back into the Weimar Republic," said one leading party member said.
Shortly before 6:30 p.m. SPD chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier and head of the party, Franz Müntefering, came onto the stage at Willy Brandt House. There was loud applause -- it was defiant though. And of course, Steinmeier was smiling -- that's part of his job. But his smile seemed unreal in light of what he was about to have to tell the audience. Müntefering, on the other hand, who was standing next to him, looked like a statue -- his mouth a thin line, his hands folded, gazing into the distance. He knew that a lot of people here tonight would be viewing him as Sunday's actual election loser.
"The voters have decided," Steinmeier began. "And the results are a bitter day for German social democracy. You can't really beat around the bush." But, he added, "we did fight!" And again there were loud cheers.
Steinmeier Wants to Lead Tough Opposition
Steinmeier thanked his supporters, reminisced on the 11 straight years his party had been part of the government and announced the inevitable: The SPD will go into the opposition. And Steinmeier, the candidate who only delivered a result of 23 percent for his party, wants to be the opposition leader, as the head of the SPD's parliamentary group. The party's current whip in parliament, Peter Struck, is leaving the position. "As the leading candidate, I would love to have this responsibility, and that is why I am saying on this bitter evening that I will not flee from this responsibility."
So Steinmeier will stay. That's not terribly surprising. Many expected him to make a grab for power -- even if some guests were left scratching their heads about the fact that he could think it self-evident to make such an announcement after a disastrous showing in the polls. "We will be an opposition that will pay very close attention to how the new government turns out to be," the 53-year-old assured them.
Is Steinmeier the Right Leader?
The applause with which his fellow party members reacted might have been good for him, but it doesn't cover up the doubts about whether he is the right man for the job. The fact that the left wing of the SPD is not going to stand for "business as usual" was already clear by 6 p.m. It certainly wasn't a coincidence that Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who has ambitions for a higher position in his party, called for a "renewal and rejuvenation" of the SPD. Björn Böhning, spokesman for the party's left-wing faction, made similar remarks, describing the poor result as a "turning point" for the SPD.
Criticism of Steinmeier's claim to the position of party whip in parliament began pouring in by the afternoon. During a telephone conference of the party's state and district leaders, state-level party leaders in particular expressed reservations about overly hasty steps. Hannelore Kraft, for example, the party's boss in populous North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, said that the party needed to take time in making personnel decisions, and that rash decisions shouldn't be made.
Another leading SPD member, more a pragmatist than a leftist, put it differently at the party's headquarters in Berlin, saying the wild applause wasn't sufficient to appoint a person as head of the party's parliamentary group after this election result. Another questioned whether Steinmeier had the goods to pit himself directly against someone as powerfully eloquent as Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine in opposition.
The SPD Cannot Avoid a Fresh Start Now
Steinmeier's future is one thing, that of Müntefering is quite another. There were quite a few SPD members at party headquarters on Sunday night who predicted the party boss would soon resign. Even before the disaster, Müntefering seemed politically crippled, having lost his aura somewhat after the party's poor showing in June's European parliamentary elections.
As the first catastrophic figures began to arrive on Sunday, the resentment within the party was made clear to the party boss during internal meetings. Yet he apparently is not contemplating resignation even in the light of the latest debacle. "German social democracy will once more fight on," he said defiantly at the podium. "We will be in politics again very soon."
One thing is certain after this result: The SPD cannot avoid a new start. It is almost certain that the party will have to move further to the left, both in terms of policy and strategy. There is nothing left if they don't want to face the 2013 election with no chances of forming a government.
Müntefering May Pay for Losses -- and Arrogant Leadership Style
The coming days will be dominated by the discussion of what leadership the party will need for this new orientation. It seems at the very least highly unlikely that Müntefering will continue as party leader. After all it wouldn't be wrong to see the result as a reckoning for the arrogant political style that has dominated the party for the past 11 years and the most prominent remaining representative of that style is Müntefering. The party is likely to make that glaringly clear to him during the party conference in November at the very latest.
Müntefering may well say that he wants "us all to stick together" ahead of that conference. Yet, that could be difficult, as was made all too clear by comments from his old rival Kurt Beck. The governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, who was SPD party leader until September 2008, said now was the time to work together to look for a new party leader. "I am in favor of working together on a proposal," he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper