The Dilemmas of Germany's PDS
Olsen, Jonathan, German Policy Studies
This article examines the evolution of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor party to the former ruling communist party in East Germany, the SED (Socialist Unity Party). The PDS has enjoyed an electoral renaissance in the eastern half of Germany since the mid-1990s, and now plays an extremely important role in the national party system in the Federal Republic as well as in state party systems in eastern Germany. Nevertheless, this article argues that the PDS is faced with two important dilemmas as it attempts to secure its long-term future in German politics, dilemmas illustrated in the makeup of its membership and voters, its party identity/ideology, and--above all--its policy positions, all of which are analyzed in detail here.
As Frank L Wilson notes elsewhere in this special issue, radical left/communist parties have had tremendous difficulties in establishing a distinctive identity and distinctive programs and policies in the wake of the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This is nowhere more true than in the case of Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Put simply, the end of communism has left the party with a number of crucial dilemmas. Unlike other communist successor parties in Eastern Europe, the PDS was born into an already developed electoral and governing system with its own institutional rules and it faced intense party competition within an already established political party system that was "extended" to eastern Germany. Unlike other communist successor parties as well, the PDS could not, even if it had wanted to, move to occupy the moderate, social-democratic left space on the ideological spectrum because the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) already occupied that space. Thus the PDS, certainly out of desire but out of necessity as well, staked a place to the left of the SPD. On the one hand this has created opportunities for the PDS since, especially in the last four years, the SPD and German Greens have moved to the middle of the ideological spectrum, leaving a vacuum on the left. On the other hand, moving to far to the left-end of the spectrum creates electoral difficulties for the party given the long tradition of failure among the West German radical left. Moreover, it is unclear whether in contemporary German politics there exists enough of a voter potential on the left that would be beneficial to the PDS. One very big dilemma of the PDS therefore continues to be establishing a political identity and a set of policies distinctive from the SPD and the Greens but nevertheless not so far to the left that the party disappears into an electoral black hole of sectarian irrelevance.
A second big dilemma for the party has to do with its role in a continuing east-west divide in reunified Germany. After initial electoral failure in the early 1990s, the PDS returned with a vengeance in the 1994 Federal Elections, where--although it continued to receive only marginal support in the old states of Germany--it garnered 4.7% of the national vote and almost 20% of the vote in the eastern half of the country. Accounting for the PDS' new success were its ability to harness dissatisfaction in the east with the ongoing economic problems associated with integrating eastern Germany into the Federal Republic as well as eastern resentment of the dominance of western political elites (1). The PDS' ability to present itself as the champion of the underdog, and its place as the only "indigenous" party in the east, has been of vital importance to the party. Indeed, the PDS' very survival as a party hitherto has depended upon its role as the party representing specific "eastern German" interests. No wonder then that there are some who view the PDS as having less in common with other communist successor parties than with "regional" parties throughout western and eastern Europe. …