[B]The Left party is set to choose two new leaders at their party convention this weekend, at a time when the party is deeply divided on how to adapt to its growing presence on the political stage.[/B]
Last Sunday, the Left party took 5.6 percent of the vote and 11 seats in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's biggest and most populous state. One in five voters live in the western state, so it's a crucial result for the party.
"This is a success, because it's the biggest and most populous state and because it's deep in western territory," Lothar Bisky, outgoing joint leader of the party said after the election.
"I'm from the East and now I realize that we're in seven western German regional parliaments. Soon we'll be everywhere," he added.
At the last national election in 2009, the party managed an impressive 8.4 percent and grabbed 11 seats. It has MPs in all six eastern German states and in Berlin and Brandenburg, it forms part of the government in a coalition with the Social Democrats.
Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democrat from the south-western state of Saarland, is credited with making the party more popular in western Germany. The Left party was formed in 2007 with members of the former Socialist party PDS in the East and disgruntled unionists from the west.
While Bisky is the pragmatic leader from the former East, who is keen to compromise to get into coalition governments, Lafontaine is seen as a hardliner, like many of his fellow party members from the west of Germany.
The new candidates for the leadership, Klaus Ernst and Gesine Loetzsch, have similar differences.
"Klaus Ernst who is from Bavaria in the West, stands more on the side of fundamental opposition. For him, participation in government is not important, he feels that as an opposition politician you can exert even more influence," Hans Kleinsteuber, a politics professor from the University of Hamburg told Deutsche Welle.
"Gesine Loetzsch on the other hand is from East Germany and she believes that only as part of a coalition government can you be influential in politics," he said.
One of the main objectives for the new leaders is working on a new manifesto. The Left party's controversial policies include nationalizing of banks and energy companies, legalizing cannabis and abolishing religious education as a separate subject in schools. But the party still has a long way to go before the manifesto is a done deal.
"I want to make sure that we discuss the draft manifesto very thoroughly," Gesine Loetzsch said. "We also have to ask ourselves how we can incorporate our own work into this draft. But I believe the general gist of the draft will be reflected in the new manifesto," she added.
Ernst is a staunch union man, who is keen to strengthen the grassroots of the party.
"I get the impression that our members want to have a say in political and other topics" Ernst said. "For example, how do we involve members in negotiations on coalition agreements? We believe that members should be able to vote in referendums," he added.
[B]Fit for government?[/B]
While many politicians from the established parties believe the Left party is not fit for government, Kleinsteuber believes that, on a regional level, it has already made an impact.
"On a national level we feel that the Left party is too inexperienced to enter any coalition government," he told Deutsche Welle.
"But on the state level, they are already a junior partner in two coalition governments and, now, the crucial question is whether that will also happen in North-Rhine Westphalia."
Negotiations in North-Rhine Westphalia are still ongoing. The two strongest parties there, the Social Democrats and the Greens, need a third partner to form a coalition, which could either be the Free Democrats or the Left party.
Author: Nicole Goebel
Editor: Andreas Illmer