Mon, Sep 12, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Germany's left fights to return to parliament

AP , PIRNA, GERMANY

Pedestrians walk past electoral billboards of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, right, of the Social Democratic party and his challenger Angela Merkel, candidate for Chancellor of the conservative opposition and head of the Christian Democratic Union on Saturday in Berlin. Early general elections are scheduled to take place in Germany on Sept. 18.

PHOTO: AFP

Katja Kipping, stumping for votes in Germany's former communist east, is a rising star in the new Left Party as it fights to return to parliament in next Sunday's election.

Kipping, 27, stresses her ex-communist party's uncompromising commitment to opposing efforts to trim the welfare state as she seeks to restore its place on the national stage.

"We have shown that we are ready for a new departure, for renewal, that we are not just about being a party for the east, and people are rewarding that," said Kipping, one of its deputy leaders and the lead candidate in the eastern state of Saxony.

Kipping says her party offers the only "democratic alternative" to unpopular benefit cuts pushed by the other major parties.

While she embodies the party's efforts to break away from an aging, backward-looking image, the party also is tending its roots with election posters proclaiming that it is "100 percent for the east."

Polls suggest voters in the former communist east are ready to listen, three years after many deserted the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS, for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats.

Schroeder's pro-business attempts to cut welfare-state benefits have galvanized Germany's traditionalist left, prompting the ex-communists to merge with a western-based group of disgruntled former Social Democrats to form the Left Party. In the east, however, people still simply call it the PDS.

In 2002, a lackluster PDS campaign was drowned out by Schroeder's slick handling of floods in the economically depressed east and by his strident opposition to war in Iraq, a stance with strong appeal in PDS ranks. But Schroeder's program of welfare state reforms breathed new life into the party.

Its platform features a mandatory minimum wage, a reversal of cuts to long-term jobless benefits, a tax on financial assets and an increase in the top income tax rate to 50 percent from the current 42 percent.

They also want a tax on share transactions, and a strict pacifist course that would feature an end to conscription and a cut in troop numbers, stands that alarm more centrist politicians.

"We must make clear that these people ... if they ever had the chance to lead Germany would isolate this country abroad and lead it into terrible economic difficulties at home, to put it very mildly," Schroeder said last month.

Surveys show the Left Party polling 8 percent or more nationwide -- clear of the 5 percent needed to win seats in parliament, double the total three years ago that pushed it off the national stage.

In the east, the Left Party has run neck and neck with Schroeder's party and conservative challenger Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats at around 30 percent. Three years ago, it won 17 percent, with the Social Democrats scoring 40 percent.

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