German Elections: PDS keen to shake off its pariah image

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EAST GERMANY'S former Communists, still basking in their electoral triumph, yesterday declared their intention to try to shake off their pariah image - and to spread their appeal into the far larger west.

Lothar Bisky, president of the renamed Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), said in Berlin that 'Stalinism no longer represented an option' and that the party was now only interested in democratic solutions. Gregor Gysi, the party's most charismatic figure, said that the PDS could no longer be dismissed as a relic from the past.

The 4.4 per cent of the vote in united Germany won by the PDS in Sunday's election was a dramatic improvement on the 2.4 per cent in 1990. The capture of four out of five east Berlin constituencies, moreover, gave the party 30 seats in the Bundestag (parliament). Most support came from the east, where it has capitalised on the disillusionment of many after unification. But the result saw a trebling of the party's vote in the more affluent west - a rise from 0.3 per cent to 0.9 per cent.

'With almost 20 per cent support in the east, it would have been a catastrophe if we had not been represented in parliament,' said Mr Gysi.

'But the showing in the west shows we can now become an accepted party nation-wide.'

As the direct successors to the East German Communist Party, the PDS has always been haunted by its past. In the final weeks of the campaign, with polls suggesting it was going to be a close-run race, Chancellor Helmut Kohl stepped up his attacks on the party, referring to its members as 'red-painted fascists'. Mr Kohl's main rival, Rudolf Scharping, said that his Social Democrats would never stoop to co-operation with the 'anti-democratic' PDS.

While the vast majority of PDS members came from the old Communist party, it has attracted support among more rebellious young, tired of the staid politics of the more established parties and refreshed by the PDS's more irreverent approach. 'This government has been annoying you for four years,' Mr Gysi told one election rally. 'So why don't you annoy it for a change.

Vote PDS.'

With Chancellor Kohl's return to power, albeit with a drastically reduced majority, the PDS will focus on its role as a far-left opposition party and a constant irritant. 'With almost double the number of MPs, we will be able to raise more questions, sit on more committees and generally make our presence more felt in Bonn,' said Erwin Muller, a party official. 'We hope that without any formal agreements, we may be able to work with the other opposition parties (the Social Democrats and Greens) on specific issues.'

In addition to more aid, investment and a better deal for the east, the PDS will be calling for massive job-creation schemes, social housing projects and a ban on any expansion of the military. Mr Gysi will remain the party's most glittering star. But he will be joined on the PDS benches in the Bundestag by the writer Stefan Heym, Christina Schenk, a well-known lesbian, Rolf Kutzmutz, a self-confessed Stasi informer, and Heinrich von Einsiedel, the eccentric great-grandson of Bismarck.