BERLIN – A quarter-century after the Berlin Wall crumbled, an election this weekend may show whether Germany is ready for its first state governor from the party descended from East Germany's communist rulers.
The opposition Left Party hopes to end the 24-year grip of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives on the governor's office in eastern Thuringia state Sunday.
While his party emerged from the old communist guard, Left Party candidate Bodo Ramelow is anything but a throwback to Soviet times. The 58-year-old, a practicing Protestant and West German native, went east when Germany reunited in 1990 as a labor union official and later joined the Left Party's ex-communist predecessor.
He offers a reassuring slogan: "Not everything has to be different, but we can do a lot better."
Still, his rise shows how unease over the party's communist-era heritage has dimmed over the years. Memories of communist rule have faded and the Left Party itself, though it remains strongest and best-organized in the east, has evolved into a modern nationwide political force that embraces views from the hard to moderate left.
Ramelow is nonetheless something of a rarity on the German political scene: "This might not work in a different place with a different person" from the pragmatic Ramelow, said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University.
"In 2014, it won't help much to raise the specter of the communist party or the specter of a Left Party governor," senior Left Party official Matthias Hoehn said this week.
The Left Party opposes military deployments abroad, advocates dissolving NATO and has criticized sanctions against Russia in the Ukraine crisis. It opposed Merkel's austerity policies in the eurozone debt crisis, which the center-left Social Democrats — Merkel's allies in national government and Ramelow's potential partner in Thuringia — supported.
Thuringia has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany's ex-communist east, at 7.5 percent not far above the national average. But Ramelow criticizes the conservative record, pointing to a large number of low-wage temporary jobs and saying prosperity is too unevenly spread.
Whether Ramelow can win depends on the Social Democrats, who have long struggled with their left-wing rivals. Polls indicate that they will finish third, giving them the choice of continuing an alliance with conservative governor Christine Lieberknecht or allying with Ramelow and the Greens for a multi-party coalition.
It's the first time the Social Democrats have raised the possibility of serving under a Left Party governor, though the Left Party has been the Social Democrats' junior coalition partner in three other eastern states. While the Social Democrats' general secretary, Yasmin Fahimi, insists an alliance in Thuringia wouldn't be a "test run," it would feed speculation about a future national coalition.
Two of Germany's last three national elections produced a left-wing parliamentary majority but resulted in Merkel running the country in a "grand coalition," an uncomfortable alliance of rivals with the Social Democrats. Both times, the Social Democrats rejected governing Germany with the Left Party, though they have vowed not to rule out doing so ahead of future elections.
Whether such an alliance could offer them a route back to the chancellery is questionable. The parties' national leaders have long had political and personal differences; former Social Democrats angry at economic reforms joined ex-communists to create today's Left Party in 2005.
"At federal level, the difficulties between the two parties are a great deal bigger, above all about foreign policy and European policy and so on, security and defense questions," Niedermayer said.