Political career of Oskar Lafontaine ends after German Left party showdown
Veteran politician humiliated after pressing for euro exit policy
Losing Oskar Lafontaine robs Germany’s Left Party of an experienced campaigner ahead of September’s general election. Photograph: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
For 40 years Oskar Lafontaine was, depending on your politics, a German left-wing hero or unpredictable bogeyman. He survived a knife attack, beat cancer and, as Social Democrat (SPD) leader, masterminded the 1998 general election that ended Helmut Kohl’s 16-year term.
Now the 69-year-old’s political career has come to an abrupt end after he committed the cardinal sin of politics: not knowing when to bow out.
At a weekend conference of the Left Party, his political home for the last decade, Mr Lafontaine demanded the general election manifesto push for a German euro exit. Facing him down, 35-year-old party leader Katja Kipping argued the party did not support a return to the deutschmark. Instead they should fight the “real danger for the euro”, she said: crisis-era austerity and welfare cuts demanded by German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Delegates in Dresden followed Ms Kipping and humiliated Mr Lafontaine. Despite hurried damage-limitation efforts, it was clearly the end of a political era.
“I didn’t share Lafontaine’s position and said so, because to leave the euro would be wrong for our partners and wrong for us,” said Gregor Gysi, parliamentary party leader in the Bundestag. “If the euro breaks down because of Frau Merkel’s incorrect policies that is one thing. But it’s not something we wish to happen.”
Losing Mr Lafontaine robs the Left Party of an experienced campaigner ahead of September’s general election. But it also removes a key impediment to closer co-operation with the SPD. Many SPD supporters considered Mr Lafontaine a traitor twice over: for walking out as finance minister in 1999 and, in 2005, for taking SPD voters disillusioned with Schröder-era reform with him to the Left Party.
Even before he was shafted, Mr Lafontaine’s current and previous political homes have begun to overlap. Left Party delegates agreed a programme promising to increase taxes on top earners and heirs to finance higher welfare payments and pensions. The SPD, meanwhile, has distanced itself from the Schröder era and promises voters reform corrections in the hopes of unseating Dr Merkel.
Left Party leaders face struggles of their own to reconcile more pragmatic easterners with hard, anti-capitalist western wing. Public in-fighting has seen a five-point drop in support from its record 2009 result of almost 13 per cent. And while it’s probably too soon to expect any SPD-Left Party alliance this time around, minus Red Oskar, Germany’s left has one excuse less.