German Ex-Communists Seek Revolution in Luther’s Homeland

Thuringia in eastern Germany is proud of its historical associations. Martin Luther, father of the Reformation that split 16th century Europe into religious schisms, went to school in the state, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and Johann Wolfgang Goethe found his muse.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Thuringia is again poised to make history with a revolution of a different sort. It’s where former Communists are within reach of capturing their first regional government since being tossed out of power in 1989.

Victory next month in Thuringia, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has governed since the Wall fell, would boost the national ambitions of the anti-capitalist Left, the successor to the party that ruled East Germany. After the Greens won their first state in 2011, it’s the latest sign of new political alignments as Merkel nears a decade in power.

A Left-led Thuringia government “could have a great deal of meaning for federal politics,” Bodo Ramelow, the Left’s prime minister candidate, said in an interview. “We are on the cusp of the biggest changes that Thuringia will have to execute in the 25 years since the opening of the border.”

With calls for bank nationalization and an upper limit on income, the Left’s platform resonates with voters in the east, where prosperity still lags west German levels. Merkel steps up her campaigning in the region this week ahead of three state elections starting Aug. 31 in Saxony that will provide a snapshot of voter opinion in her eastern homeland.

Protestant Roots

While polls suggest Saxony will be a hold for Merkel’s party, Ramelow’s challenge makes Thuringia’s election on Sept. 14 harder to call. Brandenburg, the state that encircles Berlin, votes the same day.

Born into a West German family with Protestant roots, Ramelow held labor-union posts and has a business education, including a sales traineeship at the Karstadt department store chain. That’s helped position him at the political center in Thuringia, where Luther and Bach attended the same school in the town of Eisenach some 200 years apart.

Ramelow, 58, has won backers with pragmatic messages that include downsizing the state administration and hiring 5,000 new teachers in the next 10 years. He also supports providing more small-business loans and boosting research and development, according to his website.

“I’m a small businessman,” Ramelow said this month at his office nestled in the medieval center of the state capital of Erfurt. “The accusation that the Left can’t handle money is completely far-fetched and wouldn’t stand up to any test.”

Pariah Party

Shunned for two decades by rival parties at the federal level, the Left commands support of 20 percent or more in all of the former East German regions except Berlin, compared with 9 percent nationally.

Winning Thuringia’s top office next month will probably require a switch of allegiance by the Social Democratic Party, which has backed a Christian Democratic state premier since 2009 in a coalition that mirrors Merkel’s at the national level.

Helping Ramelow is the declining popularity of premier Christine Lieberknecht, who has drawn SPD criticism for decisions such as allowing an aide to retire at age 37 with a state pension.

The CDU still has the most support in the state with 34 percent backing, with the Left second at 26 percent, an INSA poll showed this month. The SPD had 19 percent and the Greens 6 percent, giving a three-way alliance with the Left enough seats to form a coalition.

“The old parties from the West have been disappointing from the point of view of eastern voters and Ramelow has somehow managed to present himself as a sympathetic guy,” said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling organization. “While the Left may not win in absolute terms, many supporters of the others parties simply may not vote.”

Changing Alliances

The Social Democrats, who already govern elsewhere with the Left, are considering for the first time joining a state coalition headed by the former Communists. The SPD broke new ground in 2011 when it joined the Greens as junior partner after the environmental party won the CDU heartland of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

In Thuringia, the governing CDU says Ramelow wants to lead the state back to the Communist past. Along with limiting the income of millionaires, the Left also advocates a basic salary for everybody, denounces all Germany’s foreign military missions and calls for the country’s exit from NATO.

“The election campaign ideas make clear that the Left party is stuck in the past,” Mario Voigt, the regional CDU general secretary, said in a statement. “The change in political direction that Bodo Ramelow is pursuing would turn Thuringia on its head.”

Economic Lag

Such concerns don’t restrain Ramelow’s personal appeal among supporters in this state of 2.29 million, known around the country for its bratwurst, hiking trails through the Thuringian Forest and idyllic towns of half-timbered houses such as Erfurt and Weimar.

“It’s surely a strange feeling that, 25 years after the demise of the GDR, a Socialist could come to power,” said Werner Mukran, a 73-year-old pensioner in Erfurt. “But Ramelow will certainly do a good job.”

Thuringia, Germany’s fourth-smallest state economy by output, expanded 0.5 percent last year. While that’s more than the 0.4 percent recorded for Germany as a whole, it’s only half the rate at which neighboring Bavaria, the country’s second-biggest economy that’s home to Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Siemens AG, is growing.

Unemployment in Thuringia -- whose biggest employers include Jenoptik AG, an Opel brand factory and mid-sized auto industry suppliers -- was more than twice as high. The jobless rate averaged 8.2 percent last year, compared with 3.8 percent in Bavaria and 6.9 percent in Germany. Business leaders express little concern about a Ramelow premiership.

Business View

“I don’t believe there will now be a complete change in political direction in Thuringia that will hurt industry,” Reinhard Paetz, regional head of the German Engineering Federation, said in a phone interview. “When such politicians come to office, they actually act quite pragmatically.”

Ramelow is also careful to distance himself from some of the party’s anti-capitalist rhetoric and says as prime minister he would adhere to Germany’s strict budget-deficit rules. He does support the call to limit income -- a position he says won’t cost him too many votes in his home state.

“The number of people earning millions here in Thuringia is rather limited,” Ramelow said. “I think I could meet with all three of them in a telephone booth.”

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