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article imageGerman far-left makes historic debut at state helm

By Kate Millar (AFP)     Dec 5, 2014 in World

Germany's far-left took the helm of a state government Friday for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, stoking heated debate about its communist roots.

Its tie-up with two other left leaning parties has raised the question of whether such a coalition may one day challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel at the national level.

Regional lawmakers in eastern Thuringia state approved as premier Bodo Ramelow, 58, of the Linke party, a successor to the former communist East's ruling party.

The outcome of the secret ballot had been uncertain as the Linke, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens together have a majority of just one seat.

Applause erupted in the state assembly in the city of Erfurt when Ramelow was confirmed as premier and immediately sworn in.

Ramelow in his acceptance speech apologised to victims of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and said his party would play its part in dealing with the communist past.

Turning to a friend in the chamber, Andreas Moeller, who had spent time in a Stasi secret police prison, Ramelow said: "To you and all your companions, I can only ask you to accept my apology."

The anti-capitalist and staunchly pacifist Linke, which translates as The Left, traditionally fares well in the former east, where it has been junior partner in several regional governments.

But in a country with painful memories of the GDR, Ramelow's rise to power has fuelled emotional debate about the party, set up in 2007 by former members of the GDR's ruling Marxist-Leninist party and disillusioned western SPD voters.

German President Joachim Gauck, a former dissident Lutheran pastor from East Germany, broke the neutrality of his office last month to say that people who lived under communism "find it quite hard to accept this".

An umbrella group of victims of the communist regime vigorously condemned the election.

On the eve of the vote, around 2,000 people protested against the Linke-led alliance outside the regional parliament, some shouting "Stasi out!"

- 'Turning point' -

Ramelow, a trade unionist who hails from western Germany, said in an interview with AFP last month that the Linke-led coalition would be a "project of reconciliation" and pursue "pragmatic policies."

Heading up Thuringia signifies a turning point for the party, he said in comments to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily last week, adding that "whether it's a turning point for Germany will be seen".

Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) had ruled Thuringia since Germany's 1990 reunification and won the largest share of the vote in regional elections in September.

But their SPD coalition allies at the national level opted to throw in their lot with the Linke and Greens there to form what is called a "red-red-green" alliance in the colour-coded shorthand of German politics.

Merkel will congratulate Ramelow on becoming state premier as is the custom for a chancellor, her spokesman said.

CDU general secretary Peter Tauber called Ramelow's election a "bad choice" for Thuringia, a small rural state with a population of 2.1 million.

The new coalition has touted policies such as a free year of nursery care, recruiting more teachers and expanding renewable energy use.

Political scientist Jens Walther of Duesseldorf University said it was "conceivable" that Thuringia's left-leaning coalition could one day be replicated at the federal level, although the SPD was not yet ready for such a tie-up.

"But it'll have to do with how much the Linke is ready to compromise at the national level," he told AFP, pointing to potential stumbling blocks such as the Linke's opposition to Germany's NATO membership.

But SPD general secretary Yasmin Fahimi dismissed the idea her party could team up nationally with the Linke in future.

"The government formation in Thuringia has nothing whatsoever to do with a possible coalition at federal level," she told public broadcaster rbb-inforadio.

The Greens' Katrin Goering-Eckardt welcomed the state-level tie-up but said it was not a model at federal level where differences are "insurmountable".

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