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German Left Party flounders amid financial crisis

By Geir Moulson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 26 2011 5:41 a.m. MDT

BERLIN — These should be promising times for Germany's Left Party: a stubborn financial crisis, an unpopular center-right government, and upcoming regional elections in two longtime strongholds.

Instead, an effusive birthday message to Cuba's Fidel Castro and some members' defense of the Berlin Wall have drawn unflattering attention this week to a party that can't quite escape its ex-communist roots.

It has struggled with weak leadership and discord recently as other opposition parties benefit from government discomfort over the eurozone debt crisis, nuclear energy and more. Once-frequent talk of it joining a future German government has ebbed away.

"The situation in our country, the social situation in Europe, is such that we should be clearly ahead in polls — but we're not," conceded the Left's parliamentary group leader Gregor Gysi.

With demands centering on reversing welfare-state cuts and also including strict opposition to German military involvement in Afghanistan, the Left Party prides itself on standing apart from more established parties.

Still, in elections next month, the party looks likely to be voted out as junior governing partner in Berlin — one of two regions it helps run. Its chances in another eastern state, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, are uncertain.

It flopped badly in two regional votes in western Germany in March — in which its center-left rivals, the Social Democrats and Greens, triumphed.

Nationally the Left Party has slipped to 8 percent support, down from 12 percent in 2009's election.

Not the best time for the Cuban Embassy to publish a message from co-leaders Gesine Loetzsch and Klaus Ernst congratulating "dear Comrade Fidel Castro" on turning 85.

"You can look back full of pride over a life full of battles and successful work at the head of the Cuban revolution," the letter said, praising his "political far-sightedness" but making no mention of human-rights issues.

The letter, which surfaced last weekend, was sent Aug. 13 — the 50th anniversary of East Germany's building of the Berlin Wall. At a regional convention that day, a few delegates refused to stand for a minute of silence to people killed at the communist country's fortified border.

The hard-left Junge Welt daily, in which the party has advertised, marked the anniversary with a front-page headline saying "Thank you" for the wall's construction — prompting many members to protest.

That all fed long-standing doubts about how far the Left Party has put behind it the communist past — although its leaders now indicate they regret the style of the Castro letter, which it emerged was composed by party workers and automatically signed in the leaders' names.

Greens leader Claudia Roth called the Left Party "a retro party that hasn't come to terms with the real challenge of a lively democracy."

That underlined sinking chances of it entering national government, something Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University, said is now "extremely unlikely."

These days, "when it makes it into the media, it's because of internal squabbles or dubious remarks about the past with which western German voters, above all, of course have gigantic problems," Niedermayer said.

The Left Party was born in 2005, when the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism — which had made no inroads outside former East Germany — joined forces with western leftists angered by a welfare-state reform drive.

Ex-communist Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine, a charismatic ex-Social Democrat, led the Left Party into parliament that year, then into a string of regional legislatures across Germany.

That fed speculation that the center-left might be unable to regain power without its support.

But Lafontaine stepped down last year due to illness, and the party has struggled under less charismatic successors Loetzsch and Ernst — an east-west duo that reflects the party's still-fragmented nature.

Loetzsch has drawn criticism for penning an article on "the ways to communism," while Ernst made few friends by saying he enjoys driving a Porsche.

Gysi said the party has made great progress in overcoming the communist past.

But he conceded that "we have been too preoccupied with ourselves in recent months — that's never good."

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