German Left Party Shut Out of Talks

Germany's new Left Party (search) could give Germany's left a majority in the country's parliament — but has been shut out of talks on forming a new government because of its communist roots and controversial leaders.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's (search) Social Democrats began coalition talks with their allies, the Greens, on Wednesday, three days after their seven-year-old government was defeated in parliamentary elections.

But rather than turning to the Left Party next to take them past the 50-percent mark and prevent conservatives led by Angela Merkel (search) from taking power, Schroeder's party is wooing the pro-business Free Democrats, who have refused to agree to attend talks to seek common ground.

"We will not form any coalition with the Left Party, that's definite," Gernot Erler, a senior Social Democrat lawmaker said Wednesday.

The Left Party is considered untouchable for several reasons, some political and some personal.

It was formed in the run-up to the election by the successors to the former East German communist party and a new group formed by renegade Social Democrats upset at Schroeder's attempts to reform the welfare state.

Rejecting cuts in unemployment benefits and calling for higher tax on corporations and high-wage earners, it secured 8.7 percent of the vote on Sunday, eclipsing the Greens to become the country's No. 4 political force.

One of its leaders is former Social Democratic chairman Oskar Lafontaine, who quit as party chairman and finance minister of Schroeder's first government, chafing at the chancellor's pro-business leanings. Lafontaine campaigned alongside Gregor Gysi, a former communist who is popular in the economically depressed east but whose background still raises deep misgivings in the wealthier west.

Senior Social Democrats insist they will press ahead with the reforms begun under Schroeder as the only way to spark the economy and bring down unemployment without wrecking the welfare state completely.

They rule out any talks with Lafontaine, whose animosity toward Schroeder is mutual — setting a second seemingly insurmountable barrier to an all-left government.

Left Party leaders say they too see little common ground with the Social Democrats, who are also known as by their German initials SPD, and have promised to oppose any policies that dismantle social security programs or foster inequality.

Others, including Berlin's Social Democrat Mayor Klaus Wowereit, forecast that it will take years for the rancor to ease and that the parties could cooperate only after the next scheduled election in 2009.

"I cannot imagine that the SPD will abandon its whole course overnight," Gysi said Monday as the Left Party savored its success. "I think it will take time for the SPD to become social democratic again."