Ex-Communist is set to steal protest vote: A 'man of the people' in Potsdam's mayoral election has a message for Bonn

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The Independent Online
'AN ex-Communist mayor would be an absolute disaster for this city,' exclaimed Jurgen Schaller, in between serving customers at his Potsdam bookstall. 'Bonn would cut funds and investors would shun us. But I am going to vote for the man anyway. It is about time we had leaders who look after the interests of ordinary people instead of just the rich.'

Mr Schaller, a former officer in the East German airforce, will not be alone on Sunday when he puts his cross against the name of Rolf Kutzmutz, candidate of the reformed Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), in the run-off election to determine who becomes mayor of Potsdam. A majority in the city is expected to do likewise - despite the fact that Mr Kutzmutz is a former Communist Party official and, by his own admission, once worked as an informer for East Germany's hated Stasi secret police.

'The Kutzmutz team is much more engaged and is going to make sure their people turn out to vote,' said Werner Kolhoff, a journalist covering the election for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. 'They want everyone to see that this is a serious protest. They want the result here to hit home where it hurts - in Bonn.'

Germany's main political parties are still reeling from the shock of the first round of voting in Potsdam earlier this month which saw Mr Kutzmutz notch up an astonishing 45 per cent against the dismal 29 per cent achieved by Horst Gramlich, the incumbent Social Democrat (SPD) mayor. Mr Kutzmutz's personal success, not far short of the absolute majority required to win, came on a day of triumph for the PDS in local elections held throughout the eastern state of Brandenburg. Although the party finished well behind the SPD, it had the satisfaction of squeezing Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) into a humiliating third place and effectively proving wrong all those who had consigned it to political history.

While some were quick to interpret the result as a disaster and possible danger to democracy, others saw it as an almost inevitable swing away from the western-dominated political parties, and in particular the CDU, in which east Germans placed their faith in 1990, the year of German unity. 'The PDS managed to address the problems that really affect people (in the east),' conceded Werner Hoyer, General Secretary of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government. 'In many areas it presented itself as closer to the citizens than the established parties.'

Being of the east - and sticking up for the interests of the east - was one of the PDS's main messages to the voters of Brandenburg earlier this month, repeated again in the run-offs in just under 20 mayoral contests this Sunday. 'My biography did not begin in 1989,' proclaimed Mr Kutzmutz in his campaign posters, owning up to his past and taking a swipe at many of his opponents who, while perhaps also having enjoyed certain privileges under the Communists, choose to keep quiet about theirs.

Pessimists predict economic suicide for Potsdam if its people really do elect a former Communist as mayor. 'Where the PDS rules . . . there will be less investment and fewer jobs,' warned Hans-Peter Stihl, head of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, in the populist Bild newspaper.

Others, however, think a Kutzmutz victory should not necessarily be feared. 'People in the west have to accept that the East German Communist Party had two million members, not all of whom were out and out Stalinists,' said Mr Kolhoff. 'Some of those who ran cities and towns did so rather well. On a local level, they won the trust of the people. So why shouldn't they be voted into power again?'