German Elections: Former Communists bounce back: Backlash in the east could reduce Kohl majority to under 10 seats

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EAST Germany's former Communists were euphoric last night after an election triumph that gave them just under 30 seats in the new German parliament.

'This is a great victory for us,' declared Hanno Harnish, spokesman of the renamed Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), as celebrations got under way in east Berlin. 'It is also a great relief. We have campaigned hard and shown that we are the party that represents the interests of east Germans.'

With counting not yet over, the PDS was poised to win some 4.4 per cent of the vote, nearly all of it in the eastern half of the country. Although this fell short of the 5 per cent necessary for parliamentary representation, the party's entry was secured thanks to its outright success in three - and perhaps even four - east Berlin constituencies.

With a probable 29 seats, the PDS presence in parliament effectively reduced Chancellor Helmut Kohl's majority to under 10 seats.

Gregor Gysi, the PDS's leading candidate and one of the country's most talented politicians, comfortably won his seat in the district of Marzahn and Hellersdorf. Christa Luft, economics minister in the last East German Communist government, also romped home while Stefan Heym, the region's most prominent writer, defeated Wolfgang Thierse, a leading Social Democrat, in a close race. Manfred Muller looked set to capture a fourth seat directly for the party.

A huge cheer went up as news came through of Mr Heym's triumph - the win that clinched the PDS's place in the Bundestag (parliament). 'It was a very moving moment,' said Sylvia Muller, one of the predominantly young crowd at the PDS party last night. 'Of course we'd hoped for it; some had even expected it - but it was wonderful to have it confirmed.'

At 81, Mr Heym, a fierce critic of East Germany's old Communist regime, will be the oldest member of the Bundestag and will therefore make the opening speech when it next convenes. He said he was looking forward to his new role and representing the interests of his constituents.

Although the PDS likes to present itself as a party for the young, most of its members are former East German Communists - many of whom feel they have lost out in the process of unification.

The PDS has successfully capitalised on feelings of betrayal felt by many easterners, and resentment over what they feel was the arrogant manner in which west Germans took over.

'There is a fairly substantial minority of several million people in the east whose lives have been ruined,' said Rainer Oschmann, editor of the former Communist party flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland. 'These are ordinary workers, but also teachers and highly trained workers . . . They've been made the losers of unity because of their past.'

While many east Germans still feel to have lost out since the collapse of Communism, a growing number are coming to feel that they are better off.

Chancellor Kohl's government has pumped some DM500bn ( pounds 210bn) into the east over the past four years: money now beginning to bear fruit in terms of growing production and falling unemployment.

Although the Chancellor's Christian Democrats (CDU) recorded losses in the east compared to their 1990 performance, they were less than predicted earlier this year.

(Photograph omitted) Leading article, page 15