Angela Merkel has been in power for nine years. And while she undoubtedly enjoys huge personal popularity, that lengthy tenure is actually thanks to the isolation of a small group of former communists.
Yet that isolation is now easing.
A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Left Party, the inheritors of the East German communist party, are set to head a state government for the first time.
And that is with the backing of Ms. Merkel’s current federal coalition partners, the Social Democrats, or SPD.
It is a move that could have a knock-on effect, posing a threat to Ms. Merkel’s dominance of German politics.
The Left Party has long been treated almost as a pariah by the other mainstream parties. This is partly due to unease about its history. It was formed in 2007 out of a merger of West German socialists and the PDS, the successor party to the SED party which ruled East Germany until 1989.
Another major obstacle is its foreign policy. The Left Party calls for the dissolution of NATO, opposed Germany’s involvement in the Afghanistan war, questions Western sanctions against Russia and has been critical of Germany’s handling of the euro crisis.
Yet the expected election of Bodo Ramelow, a trade unionist raised in the former West Germany, as the premier of the eastern German state of Thuringia on Friday marks a significant shift in German politics.
Many observers here see this as a first step toward a possible alliance of the three left-of-center parties - the Left Party, the Green Party and the SPD - at a federal level.
Until recently the SPD and Greens have refused point blank to consider forming a government with the Left Party on a national level, leaving the way free for Ms. Merkel to maintain her grip on power.
Although her party, the Christian Democrats, is the country’s biggest, the majority of the parliamentary seats in two of the last three federal elections actually went to the three parties on the left of the spectrum.
This forced Ms. Merkel into a "grand coalition" with the SPD after the CDU's preferred coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, were booted out of parliament in September.
A red-red-green three-way coalition is unparalleled in Germany, and I think this constellation can become a normality. Bodo Ramelow, Left Party, Thuringia
Ahead of last year’s federal elections, Left Party leader Bernd Riexinger said: "Including us would mean the end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship. The SPD's exclusion-itis is Merkel's guarantee, her life insurance."
That guarantee could be running out.
Members of the CDU are alarmed at the fact that Mr. Ramelow will be voted into office on Friday with a wafer-thin majority of one vote. It will end their party’s rule in a state it has governed since reunification in 1990.
After state elections in September the SPD and CDU could theoretically have revived their coalition there but instead the SPD rank-and file voted to support a coalition with the Left and the Greens. In Thuringia the SPD is only half as strong as the Left Party, which attracts a strong following in the former East.
“A red-red-green three-way coalition is unparalleled in Germany, and I think this constellation can become a normality,” said Mr. Ramelow after the parties agreed to form the alliance.
The Social Democrats have already ruled with the Left Party in Brandenburg, Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but as the bigger party.
The fact that the Social Democrats are willing to trust the Left Party to head a state government signals a new willingness on their part to look for alternatives to being yet again the junior partner to Ms. Merkel's CDU.
In 1998 and 2002 the Greens and SPD had enough support on their own to form a coalition under Gerhard Schröder. However, the painful labor and welfare reforms he introduced under the Agenda 2010 program saw the SPD hemorrhage grassroots support, particularly to the Left Party.
The leftists also attracted those disappointed in the other two parties’ support for Germany’s involvement in the Afghanistan war.
Meanwhile the SPD has continued to see its support decline, struggling to overcome the widening gap in popularity with the CDU. In the 2013 election it trailed the conservatives by around 15 percent.
And it has so far failed to come up with a leader that can match Ms. Merkel’s popularity.
That makes the prospect of a coalition with the Left Party all the more attractive.
In 2013, after the federal elections, the party for the first time said that it would not categorically rule out an alliance with the Left Party, but that certain conditions had to be met before it would enter such a coalition.
Many, particularly on the left of the SPD are desperate to escape the fate of constantly being stuck as the smaller party. “It is good that we have alternatives and that we don’t give ourselves up to a Babylonian imprisonment by the CDU,” deputy leader Ralf Stegner said in October.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, currently deputy chancellor as well as economics and energy minister, will be looking closely at how the three-way alliance goes in Thuringia. He doesn’t want to be too closely associated with it in case it blows up in the SPD’s face. However, if it is a success, he will know that it could open the way for him to become chancellor.
Nevertheless, the SPD will struggle to find policy overlaps with the Left Party.
“In certain areas of social policy they are relatively close but in other areas, particularly economic policy, European policy and security policy, they are pretty far apart,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin.
In Thuringia, however, where foreign and European issues won’t play a part, the parties are likely to find enough common ground, and Mr. Ramelow is unlikely to indulge in any embarrassing experiments.
“Mr. Ramelow is a West German trade union official. He knows all about negotiations, he has been socialized in that way, and that is his political experience,” said Mr. Neugebauer. “Compromises are his business.”
Is the party really so far removed from the SED and their ideas of repressing people, that we can trust them fully? Joachim Gauck, German President
Yet many still have their suspicions about the party.
Even President Joachim Gauck, himself a former dissident in East Germany, has said he doubts people have forgotten the party’s past. “Is the party really so far removed from the SED and their ideas of repressing people, that we can trust them fully?” he asked in a recent TV interview.
And Ms. Merkel, who also grew up in the former East under communist rule, used unusually harsh words to comment on the prospect of the former comrades ruling Thuringia.
“Karl Marx is to be carried into the offices of the state government, that cannot be possible,” she said.
This distaste about the party’s murky past is also shared by most Germans. In a recent poll 56 percent said they were against a red-red-green alliance on the federal level, although only 40 percent opposed the same coalition in Thuringia.
The danger for the SPD is that some of its more conservative remaining voters might be turned off by its flirtation with the Left and turn to Ms. Merkel's CDU, which only narrowly missed a full majority in the last elections.
With the current tensions with Russia, and the euro crisis far from resolved, Germans may not be ready to ditch the woman many call “Mutti.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered German politics for a decade. To contact the author: [email protected].