A quarter of a century after the Berlin Wall fell, Die Linke, political successors to East Germany's ruling party, has appointed its first state premier.
Bodo Ramelow, a former trade unionist born in West Germany, was elected minister-president of the central state of Thuringia with a one-seat majority on the second ballot.
In the state parliament in Erfurt, he now heads a three-party coalition supported by the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, an alliance acknowledged by all yesterday as a watershed moment in post-unification German politics.
Linke leaders welcomed the news as a further step in the normalisation process, but the Erfurt alliance was condemned by former eastern dissidents and chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), ousted from power in Thuringia despite topping the poll in October’s state election.
The prospect of a Linke-led coalition set off warning bells in Berlin after the election. Dr Merkel warned the SPD not to allow "Karl Marx enter office" in Erfurt while President Joachim Gauck, a civil rights pastor, wondered aloud on national television whether the successor party to the old Socialist Unity Party (SED) "could be fully trusted".
In a nod to his party's critics, and as a concession to his coalition partners, Ramelow agreed the programme for government acknowledge that East Germany was an Unrechtsstaat, a state where the rule of law did not apply.
Ramelow went further in his first speech as minister-president on Friday, apologising to victims of the East German regime and promising further research into GDR-era injustice. Addressing victims of the Stasi secret police, he said: “To you . . . I can only make a request for an apology.”
Opinion was divided yesterday over the significance of the new government in Erfurt. While Gregor Gysi, Linke leader in the Bundestag, saw it as a stepping-stone to similar co-operations in Berlin, that was shot down promptly by the SPD and Greens, citing Linke's anti-Israel, pro-Russian politics at federal level.
Behind the scenes, however, senior SPD officials admit serving as junior partner to the Linke was a significant day in their party history.
Since returning to office in Berlin a year ago, the SPD has won policy concessions from Merkel, from a minimum wage to a corporate female quota.
But polls show the party stuck at 25 per cent, a good 15 points behind the CDU. With three years to the next general election, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel insists that a three-way alliance with the Greens and Linke is not an option for 2017.
Unless SPD fortunes improve radically, however, Linke’s 9 per cent support is the only way to activate the Bundestag’s centre-left majority and unseat Merkel. Hesitate too long, Gabriel knows, and the CDU leader will lure away his Green allies to secure a fourth term.
Dogmatic hardcore The problem with the Linke in Berlin is less the old eastern wing of the party, which senior SPD officials admit is moderate and pragmatic, but
a dogmatic hardcore from western German states. Their energetic Bundestag attacks on the US and Nato make them unappealing allies for the SPD, Gabriel confidantes say, and easy targets for CDU derision.
Merkel’s party attacked Friday’s election of the Linke and Ramelow as a “day of disgrace” for Germany and chided the SPD and Greens for assisting into office “old SED comrades and Stasi informers”.
After a loud media campaign and street protests, however, some CDU officials concede their attempts to demonise Ramelow in Thuringia have backfired.
The 58-year-old practising Lutheran was raised in Lower Saxony, in West Germany, and has lived in the east since 1990. While he has no SED taint, Ramelow pointed out that many of the CDU politicians in Erfurt were once members of the CDU “Blocpartei” that supported East Germany’s dominant SED.
Former singer and dissident Wolf Biermann, stripped of his citizenship for protesting against East Berlin politics, was philosophical about Thuringia's new government.
“Even if this soft soap apparatschik from the west plays the flawless minister-president,” he wrote in an open letter, “democracy in the eastern blossoming landscapes won’t collapse.”