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Tuesday, September 8, 1998 Published at 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK

The East holds the key

Gregor Gysi championing the rights of the East

German Elections
The parliamentary leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism, Gregor Gysi, delighted his supporters at a campaign appearance in a circus tent in Potsdam by riding on a baby elephant. It's not what one would expect from the leader of a party which is demonised as the heir to the state communism of East Germany. In fact, the PDS has some of the most colourful candidates on the campaign trail.

But Mr Gysi's support does not stem from circus stunts alone. His party draws strength from widespread anger over broken promises after German re-unification. Then a victorious Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared that "no-one would be worse off". During this year's campaign trips, he has been heckled throughout the East.

The more mainstream Social Democrats have replaced the Christian Democrats as the largest political force in the East but the PDS can count on the support of about 20% of voters. The main reason: soaring unemployment. Official numbers put it at almost 20%. In realitythe figure may be much higher.

The sense of betrayal goes deep. One-third of Eastern Germans now feel that unification brought more disadvantages than benefits to their lives. And so it is no surprise that the ex-communists can champion the rights and demands for jobs and social protection in the East more effectively than anyone else.

Holding the key

The PDS might hold the key to the whole election result. In 1994 it pulled off a big surprise, winning 30 seats in parliament. This time it hopes to win even more - and hold the balance of power.

It made its breakthrough thanks to its strong support in east Berlin, the former capital of the East German state. After winning seats in four constituencies there, the party was entitled to a bloc of seats in the federal government proportionate to its share of the whole national vote.

[ image: Chancellor Helmut Kohl: heckled]
Chancellor Helmut Kohl: heckled
Now, once again, the PDS is ahead in three or four constituencies. If it stumbles in the key areas, its national influence may be wiped out. But if its support holds up, it could win 40 seats and hold the ring in a "hung parliament".

In that case, Gregor Gysi will be extremely important. He promises to help the Social Democrat leader, Gerhard Schröder, to become Chancellor. But Mr Schröder sees that offer as a possible "kiss of death". He says he would refuse to be elected Chancellor with PDS backing.

Whether that is true remains to be seen. The SPD already is co-operating with the ex-communists at regional level.

"Facists" of the left

Mr Kohl and his followers have attacked Mr Gysi's party as "fascists" of the left. Chancellor Kohl's spokesman even hinted at a cut in financial support for the East if voters back them.

Gregor Gysi stands accused of having been an informer for the Stasi, the East German secret police, though he denies that charge. And the other parties have made much of recent revelations that the PDS secretly inherited vast funds from the East German communist party. Yet this fierce "anti-red" campaign has failed to eat into the popularity of the PDS.

In effect, Helmut Kohl won the elections four years ago thanks to a surge in support for him in the east. This time he has "lost" the East, and that may be decisive. Circus stunts or not, the key factor is that despite massive public investments in the "new Laender", the economic policies applied after unification have failed to deliver what was promised.

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