Third largest party

Ben Lewis is working with the Linkspartei's election campaign. He spoke to Ralph Steinmüller, a member of the PDS on the Bonn steering committee

How is the campaign going and how are people reacting to the Linkspartei? The reaction has been much better this time. In the last campaign for the state elections (Landestagswahlen) we had our own stalls as the PDS, but people didn't react too positively - especially here in the west and above all in Bonn, which is unfortunately a rather conservative area. We were, for example, accused of being the old Stalinists and people didn't really approach us in the way they have been doing now. They had only really heard about the PDS in the media and naturally we didn't get much positive attention. However, this accusation of being linked to the old SED has less and less substance as time goes on and since the formation of the Linkspartei the interest amongst the electorate has been big - people have approached us with open arms saying this is exactly what they need and are happy that something is finally happening. There has been a huge growth in local membership - partly for us and especially for the WASG - and the growth in interest has naturally led to the possibility of an increased dialogue with the electorate too. So your problem in the past was one of image and the associations with the PDS name? Yes. Since the formation of the Linkspartei people on the street have looked at what we stand for without the usual prejudices and have seen it as an alternative to the ruling social democrats. The Linkspartei's programme is practically identical to the one we stood on as the PDS - only through this change of name and image, and the association with the WASG here in the west, we have been able to really get through to the electorate. And the media reaction now? I think the media have been slightly more wary in their approach, but, that said, there are still a plethora of attacks on the project from the establishment. Even Der Spiegel, which some people consider a 'left' publication, has been involved. Then of course there are the attacks on Oskar Lafontaine as well. All in all, though, I would say that these haven't spoilt the genuinely positive feeling that we have been seeing on the streets. Are you happy with the drawing together of the PDS and WASG? Yes, it has to be a long-term solution - we can't go back to how it was before. People are worried about the destruction of German social welfare and it is our task to fight against this. We just can't do that without the WASG on our side - and that's why this pact came about. Two small left parties can only hold each other back, and at the end of the day you wouldn't be able to help anyone. But before in Bonn you stood against each other? Yes in the Landtagswahlen for North-Rhine Westphalia in May this year the WASG absolutely destroyed us locally - we had 0.9% of the vote (less than the far-right NPD), whereas the WASG fared better at 2.2%. This was quite a good vote for a new party, but the problem is that at a federal level these two organisations would simply make it impossible for each other to enter parliament - that was the logic behind the agreement. If you look back to the local elections here in May, the atmosphere between the two groups was quite fiery in the fight for votes. Our programme wasn't opposed to the WASG, but I'd definitely say that theirs was against us. So what made things change? Officially what happened is that the PDS and the WASG sat around a table, and the WASG insisted that it wouldn't cooperate with the PDS unless it changed its name - that's the reason why the PDS now appears in the east as 'Die Linke.PDS'. In the west all our posters have 'Die Linken' as the name of the party. That's the same here in Bonn, but we are working with other election material, whereas the WASG are only using Die Linken material. As always, we have also opened up our electoral lists to people from other organisations - for example someone here in Bonn from the DKP [German Communist Party] is on the list and there are others from certain peace groups and so on. That's always been the case with PDS and that is what is happening now with the WASG and the lists - based on the agreement that they don't stand against us and that we change our name. What are the main political differences between the two groups? The PDS has an established programme that has been discussed and worked on over a long period of time. It covers all sorts of issues, ranging from peace to women, to minority rights. The problem with the WASG, as a new formation of trade unionists who split from the SPD, is that they haven't yet been able to work out an extensive and well-crafted programme. Naturally we agree with many things that they have in their programme - they have recently added a section on peace, for example, which we thoroughly endorse. They of course also stand for social justice in the face of the current attacks on Germany's welfare state and we endorse that too. In this sense there aren't many political differences between us - the problem is that there are some people who can't get rid of this image of the PDS. Politics isn't only about ideas, but about strategy and sometimes people manoeuvre in their own interest to gain power and influence. There was a section that stayed on the outside, refusing to cooperate. The majority of the WASG is keen to work with us, but fears being swallowed up by the PDS and, on top of that, they feel the need to keep their name - because of a small group of anti-PDS people it isn't always rosy between us locally, I have to say! I think that the people who refuse to cooperate on the basis of a false image of the PDS and not on the weight of politics are just standing in the way of running a successful campaign against the other parties. Do you think these problems will hold back unity? After the elections it's going to start to get ... "¦ Interesting! Yes, exactly. That's what everyone says. The decision in favour of the Linkspartei came very quickly and the WASG voted overwhelmingly for it too. So our starting point must be this desire for unity. We didn't have a vote on it in the PDS and, although at the time I had a few issues with the agreement, I am now completely happy with the decision, as I have come to see the advantages and the positive changes it has brought with it. I think that there'll be a vote on this within the PDS soon and I will definitely vote for it. We can't go back to the situation we had before. What sort of results are you expecting locally and nationally? It's hard to say, but in Bonn I think we will get at least 7% - we may even get up to 10%. Nationally we may fare better - I really hope we manage to become the third largest party nationally - if not now, then soon!