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Analysis: The new 'Left Party' in Germany

By Kristina Cooke for CNN

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Left-wing icon and former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine.

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Germany
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(CNN) -- The story dominating the German headlines this week was not when and whether President Horst Koehler would accept the no confidence vote against the current government and dissolve parliament.

Instead, the focus has been on the new "Left Party," which just days after its launch, looks set to become Germany's third largest party, beating both Joschka Fischer's Green Party and the Liberal party (FDP).

The new "Left Party" is a coalition of disillusioned former Social Democrats and the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

Since Sunday's launch, it boasts a support base of 11 percent, which puts it safely in third place behind Angela Merkel's CDU (44 percent) and Schroeder's governing SPD party (27 percent).

However, what makes the "Left Party" a real force to be reckoned with are its two leaders -- the left-wing icon and former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, the charismatic head of the PDS.

While Lafontaine makes the party respectable for left-wingers unhappy with the record of the governing Social Democrats in West Germany, Gregor Gysi gives it legitimacy in East Germany, where the post-communist PDS still has widespread support.

For mainstream political parties, the states of the former GDR have always been a hard nut to crack. And for both main parties, support from the East is likely to be critical at the upcoming election.

While Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel is hoping that her East German roots will help her find support in the former GDR, a recent opinion poll found that 30 percent of East Germans are planning to vote for the new "Left Party" compared to only 29 percent for the CDU.

In response to the growth of the Left in the East, the CDU is now putting even more emphasis on its policies for East Germany.

And it is not only the Christian Democrats who are being forced to take notice of the new party and come up with a political strategy to deal with the threat from the left.

Foreign minister and Green Party leader Joschka Fischer warned that Lafontaine's populist approach and language were more reminiscent of the right-wing Joerg Haider in Austria and the late Pim Fortuyn in Holland, than of Karl Marx. Fischer was referring to a statement by Lafontaine, in which he said that foreign workers were taking German jobs.

Similarly in the East German state of Brandenburg, Karl Ness, head of the local SPD party called Lafontaine "a preacher of hatred," and said that the new left party was nothing but an extension of Lafontaine's ego.

However attempts to demonise Lafontaine could backfire. Conservative politician Peter Gauweiler told German TV that Lafontaine "has put his finger into many open wounds.

He has a way of connecting with the voters and the points he makes are things which the Christian Democrats will also have to address."

Both Lafontaine and Gysi have weathered many a political storm. Gysi, who is credited with being the man responsible for making the post-communist PDS electable, has been at the centre of much political wrangling throughout his career. Oskar Lafontaine, too, has had his share of farewell parties and comebacks.

While Germany prepares for elections, the impact of Lafontaine and Gysi and their new "Left Party" is likely to have more impact on Germany's political direction than either of the two main parties would like to admit.

While they have been quick to criticise, both the CDU and SPD are wary of underestimating the new third party.

Whatever the criticism from the mainstream parties, the Left Party is injecting new life into the usually rigid German political scene in the run-up to the elections this Autumn.

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