Making a difference

Eva Bulling-Schröter is one of 54 newly elected German MPs from the Linkspartei (Left Party), which achieved a magnificent 8.7% at last week's parliamentary elections. As a member of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in Bavaria, she had previously been an MP for two consecutive legislative periods. She spoke to Tina Becker about the election campaign, the merger negotiations between the PDS and the Wahlalternative (WASG) and the possibility of Linkspartei participation in government

Firstly, congratulations to you. What do you see as your role in the new parliament? We are fully committed to the joint election programme of the Linkspartei and will put into action our 'programme for the first 100 days'. We will fight together to bring back German troops from Afghanistan, we will fight to overturn the so-called Hartz IV laws [which established benefit cuts and the much-hated one-euro jobs for the long-term unemployed], we will fight for a national minimum wage, and so on. A number of Linkspartei MPs - for example, Hüseyin-Kenan Aydin - have said they could envisage and even look forward to supporting a minority government of SPD and Green Party and might be prepared to help re-elect Gerhard Schröder as chancellor. They have since qualified their comments and said that they would only work in or support a government coalition that shared our opposition to the current neoliberal agenda, the Hartz IV laws, privatisations and other such issues. We in the CPGB believe that it is unprincipled for communists and socialists to participate in capitalist governments. Managing capitalism inevitably means betraying working class interests. I share this view. Under the current system of society, the SPD will not change so dramatically that it could support our programme. In any coalition under today's circumstances, we would always be the small partner who would be taken to the cleaners. I am in politics to make a real difference, not to make compromises. There is still quite a big question mark over what kind of society the Linkspartei is fighting for. The WASG leaders want to see a Sozialstaatspartei, limited to saving the welfare state. The PDS, on the other hand, includes the word 'socialism' in its name. I think there are people in both organisations who could be described as socialists and people who are more interested in maintaining the welfare state. There will now be a number of joint commissions on regional levels which will discuss all aspects of our new programme. In my experience there are not that many differences. Particularly when it comes to concrete politics, I think our two organisations are very close together - for example, in the fight against various privatisations. There are plans to privatise the water supply - similar to what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain. But as a socialist would you like to see an emphasis of the fight for a different society in the new joint programme? Of course, socialism is the long-term objective and I believe that capitalism has to be overcome. But I believe that we should make an effort first to newly define terms like 'left', 'socialism' and 'workers' more clearly. Many of those in Germany who are fortunate enough to hold regular jobs do not necessarily see themselves as working class, but middle class. You have to take account of such changes. The PDS programme - on the whole - is very good. I was against the adoption of the clause that set out the acceptance of profit and the market economy as the basis of society, but I do not believe we are close to abolishing capitalism and therefore it is correct to emphasise today the concrete, short-term demands for the next four years. It is quite unusual that the parliament fraction of the Linkspartei will have two leaders - Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi. I expect it will work out quite well. Both are professional politicians and have been for many, many years. If there are differences between the two, as I presume there will be, then they will need to be resolved between them and in the fraction. The official merger negotiations between the two parties have been held purely on a leadership level. How is it viewed on the ground? Lots of people did not vote for either the WASG or the PDS - they voted for the Linkspartei, precisely because it is a manifestation of the early stages of a merger between the two. That is very important. We were fully aware of the danger of two left organisations fighting against each other in the election - with both potentially failing the 5% hurdle. Also, the involvement of Oskar Lafontaine with the Linkspartei brought a whole new section of people into our orbit. Since Gerhard Schröder took over as chancellor in 1998, the SPD has lost over 180,000 members. And some, not all, of them are now looking to the Linkspartei and we have had a healthy number of new members. This election campaign really brought together the membership of both parties with tremendous speed and, as far as I can tell, it all worked quite well. The Linkspartei leadership envisages that the formal merger be finalised within the next two years, but I expect it will happen quicker. It would be nonsensical to part ways and, while there aren't any joint branches yet, I believe these will start to develop very quickly in most areas. Not all members are so keen on the formal merger, particularly in the WASG. The Sozialistische Alternative Voran [the Socialist Party's small German section], for example, has collected hundreds of signatures of WASG members against a quick unification. Our motto is: 'As quickly as possible, as slowly as necessary'. If we organise frank and free discussions about the issues that unite us and about those things we disagree on, then I believe the overwhelming majority of both organisations will be supporting the merger. Of course there are teething problems and it would have been strange if there hadn't been any. For example, there were members of both organisations who felt that they should have been voted higher on the Linkspartei's electoral list in their particular federal state. Some seemed to believe that they just turn up and secure an easy ticket to enter parliament. Well, that wasn't so. You are referring to the candidate selection process in Bavaria in July, where WASG members walked out. WASG leader Klaus Ernst was voted top of the list, you came second and it was expected that another WASG member would be elected for the third or at worst fourth place - but that did not happen. That's right. Some demanded a new selection process, but that was simply not possible. All these problems are, of course, a reflection of the very short time our organisations have had to come together. When Schröder called early elections, we really had to rush things through a bit. And you must remember that not only did our two organisations not know each other very well - the WASG itself is a very new formation. In June I attended a WASG conference for the first time and it was interesting to see that most delegates did not know each other or each other's political history. This rushed process was necessary, but it also means that both sides have had to make some allowances and be very patient with each other. Can I ask you about when you were first elected an MP in 1994? I imagine that, as a Bavarian member of the PDS, you came in for a lot of stick. By the time I entered parliament, the worst had already died down. Yes, there were still lots of heckles from the floor and some people always walked out when we started speaking, but it wasn't as bad as at the beginning. Now, the main 'tactic' is to punish us with non-attention. They just don't listen when it is our turn to speak. Instead, they chat amongst themselves. It took them a while to actually understand that they had a real Bavarian PDS MP in their midst. But when I started giving speeches in my rather broad Bavarian accent, talking about Bavarian issues, that's when the penny really dropped. Once I turned up in a Dirndl [traditional Bavarian dress], which inspired some people to prolonged howling when I started speaking. But then, on the other hand, it was so rewarding to be in parliament and show the people who elected us that we can make a difference. Our actions were always very well publicised and our opposition to cuts in social services were well known. As the ecological spokesperson for our parliamentary fraction, I was particularly proud that our pressure helped to ensure animal protection was included in the Grundgesetz. Why do you think the PDS never managed to take off in the west of Germany? There is still a lot of prejudice against our party, which has often been portrayed simply as the former ruling party of East Germany. This is getting less now, but particularly in Bavaria anti-communism is still very strong. Also, we always had very few members in the west. And particularly in large federal states this meant that often there were only one or two PDS member in a given city. That could be very demoralising and counteract the potential for party growth. Now of course with the merger process between the PDS and the WASG this has changed quite dramatically. All of a sudden, there are now two, three times as many members around and organising party activities really is a lot more rewarding.