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11/26/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Germany and the Rise of the Left: A Tectonic Shift on the Horizon

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Sometimes local events can tell you quite a lot about national politics. That's why current events in the German state of Thuringia, located in the former East Germany, should get our attention. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, a local state will have a prime minister from the party "Die Linke," The Left, which is the successor party to the former SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The SED was the East German equivalent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But unlike the East German state that dissolved in 1990, the party remained -- after having changed its name a few times. Later this month, it is all but certain that the head of "Die Linke," Bodo Ramelow, will be elected prime minister of Thuringia -- with the help from the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party.

Now, one could say that 25 years after the collapse of the wall -- which was celebrated on November 9 this year -- it is time to move on and forget about past grievances. Although it was the SED that established a dictatorship that constantly monitored its citizens, put them in prison if they were unruly and killed them if they wanted to cross the border to the West. And even now German President Joachim Gauck has warned that selecting a representative of the former SED to prime minister of a German state may be difficult to digest. "Can we really fully trust this party?" he asked, expressing the feeling of uneasiness many Germans have when they think of The Left.

So the mere fact that many years have gone by since the German Democratic Republic disappeared may not be a strong enough argument to make "Die Linke" a respected party. When, for instance, the Green party asked the leadership of The Left to admit that East Germany was an unjust state, the party dodged the question. Although no one can seriously deny the character of the East German state, "Die Linke" kept quiet. They are simply afraid to alienating those voters who still consider them as guardians of the East Germany legacy.

It is true that during the process of unification not much of what were once considered East German accomplishments survived. The economic machine of the West was rolling into the East sweeping away everything not efficient. The big companies and combines of the planned economy had to close, millions of workers were laid off, the East German Mark had to go. Even most of the East German soccer clubs had to restart in lower soccer leagues, and only a few East German politicians made it into the new unified German government. Frustration and disappointment ran deep -- and still are. The Left is still capitalizing on these sentiments, as it provides the party with a solid voter base.

Moreover, in other localities "Die Linke" has been in coalitions with the SPD as the junior partner (for instance in Berlin and in Brandenburg) and has proved to be pragmatic instead of ideological. But so far, they never had been in the driver's seat. Their controversial positions on foreign policy -- they completely reject any military commitment, don't want to supply weapons against the IS terrorists and are soft on Vladimir Putin -- have never had to be translated into Realpolitik. And their willingness to spend instead of save money was reined in by the SPD. The same is true for significant tax hikes that are advocated by The Left and the introduction of new taxes like the property or the wealth tax. Furthermore, the so-called communist platform is still an integral part of the party providing a forum for the orthodox left flank of "Die Linke."

Now: All this should be enough to make the SPD think twice. However, tactical calculations are prevailing. For the Social Democrats, teaming up with "Die Linke" could chart a path out from under Angela Merkel's conservative CDU. To reach that goal, they seem willing to ignore that it is "Die Linke" that has diminished their standing in eastern Germany to that of almost a splinter party. In September's recent elections in Thuringia, the Social Democrats gained only a little more than 12 percent of the votes, far behind The Left (28.2 percent) and the CDU (33.5 percent). Reduced to a mini party, they seem now to be happy to at least play the role of a kingmaker -- even if that means ensuring the lead of the former enemy from the left.

Although denied, the long-term perspective of this move in Thuringia seems to many observers to be directed by party strategists in Berlin. The Social Democrats, sandwiched between the Green Party and The Left, can't seem to break out from the 25 to 30 percent stalemate they are in. Merkel's CDU with a stable 40 percent is far ahead. Therefore, the chance to establish another Social Democrat in the chancellery is not existent -- as long as SPD and Greens alone can't bring about a majority. This goal can only be achieved by joining forces with "Die Linke," as unpopular as this party may be within the SPD. Therefore what is happening in Thuringia is a milestone in German politics. It could lead to a shift to the left.

Two other factors are supporting this trend: The long-time ally of the CDU, the liberal party FDP, is on a clear path into oblivion. They missed returning to parliament in the national elections last year by failing to meet the minimum threshhold. They also did not make it into any of the local parliaments in Germany over the past 12 months. In Thuringia a mere 2.5 percent of voters trusted the Liberals.

But as if this headache is not enough the appearance of the "Alternative für Deutschland" (AfD), Alternative for Germany, on the political stage is now doing to the CDU what Greens and The Left are doing to the SPD for many years -- although so far on a less dramatic scale. The AfD is eating away at the right flank of the CDU. This is no real surprise since Angela Merkel has moved the conservative party so far into the center that the right flank became vulnerable. But without the Liberals and with the ascent of the AfD, Merkel's options to retain power are reduced to a single option -- to work together with the SPD.

But why can't the CDU build a coalition with the AfD? Because the Alternative for Germany at this point is gaining support for two political positions that run counter to Merkel's core convictions: First, Merkel wants to defend the Euro at any cost -- the AfD wants to get rid of the Euro. Second, Merkel wants a moderate immigration policy -- while the AfD is fueling xenophobic fears and wants to harshly restrict the influx of foreigners. Both issues are definite "no-gos" if it comes to forming a coalition -- at least for the time being.

So while from an outside perspective, German politics seem to be extremely stable with Angela Merkel now in her tenth year of governing, the truth is that Germany may be on the cusp of a tectonic political shift. This trend could be enhanced if ongoing efforts by the European Central Bank to stimulate the European economy fail, thereby fueling the appeal of euro skeptic parties like the AfD.

Politically, this scenario could push Chancellor Merkel to ease her staunch positions on spending and saving in the Eurozone. So far, Germany has pursued a rather strict austerity policy to bring European sovereign debt down to acceptable levels. With the events in Thuringia as a catalyst, this policy could now change.

This post was first published with European Affairs, Washington D.C.