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Whose Party Is It, Anyway?

3 minute read

It’s getting awfully lonely at the top for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. Their austerity drives have angered voters, alienated supporters — and inspired the creation of new leftist parties to oppose reform.

Since coming to power in 1998, Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lost 125,000 members — 16% of the total — primarily because of the government’s effort to cut back the welfare state. According to a recent Forsa poll published in Stern magazine, 64% of those surveyed think Schröder’s reforms are wrong, and 76% find them “socially unjust.” Now disgruntled SPD members and trade unionists are threatening to form an alternative leftist party. “There’s no doubt at all — if there are no changes, there will be a new party,” says Thomas Händel, an official of the powerful IG Metall engineering union in Bavaria and a 33-year SPD member.

Despite Händel’s tough talk, discussions about setting up a new party are still in the early stages. A group of dissident SPD members called the Initiative for Work and Social Justice set up a website in early March that in its first 10 days tallied 160,000 visits and signed up 750 people. Another opposition group, called Election Alternative, has drawn together officials of the Verdi public-sector trade union and leaders of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to East Germany’s Communist Party. According to Joachim Bischoff, a PDS member and one of the leaders of the new opposition movement, the two groups already have between 5,000 and 6,000 members.

“The SPD has turned to a completely neoliberal strategy,” says Händel. “While reform is necessary, it must not mean that the poor have to carry all the weight.” Among the dissidents’ demands: rescind the decision to charge patients a 310 fee every quarter to visit a doctor, raise pension payments that have been cut this year, and reform the tax system to benefit low wage earners. Schröder said the party might expel the rebels. Heide Simonis, the SPD premier of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, warned that if a new left-wing party siphoned off votes, then the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) would “win elections almost automatically.”

In Warsaw, Marek Borowski, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and until last week a prominent member of Miller’s ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), announced the formation of the Polish Social Democracy (SDPL) party, which he said will aim “to adjust [Polish] law and institutions to E.U. requirements, improve public finances and reform health insurance.” Miller, who as a result of corruption scandals, failed health reforms and planned austerity measures has seen his popularity plummet to 9% since taking office in 2001, announced he will be stepping down on May 2. Borowski said he would support the new administration — former Finance Minister Marek Belka, Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Interior Minister Józef Oleksy are tipped as possible successors — but warned that he favored fresh elections “in case of failure to create a government enjoying satisfactory support.” If a vote were held, the SDPL would take 19%, according to a poll published in the right-leaning daily Zycie, enough to make it the second-most powerful force in parliament. “Demand [for a new left-wing party] is big,” says political analyst Janina Paradowska. “There is a climate of social expectation.” If leaders like Schröder and Miller don’t deliver on those expectations, they will face more mutinies in the ranks.

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