German ex-communists celebrate gains

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The Independent Online
LIKE Chancellor Helmut Kohl, members of east Germany's former communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) are fond of telling people that reports of their political demise have been exaggerated.

The Chancellor, until a few months ago widely written off as a has-been, has a new spring in his step this week following the surprise success of his Christian Democrats (CDU) in the European elections and local polls throughout eastern Germany.

The mood at the east Berlin headquarters of the PDS has been equally euphoric. Nationally the party narrowly failed to cross the five per cent hurdle required to send deputies to Strasbourg - but in its heartlands in the east it recorded significant gains, emerging as the strongest party in east Berlin with 40 per cent.

'If you had asked me two years ago if such a result had been possible I would have been extremely cautious,' said Georg Fehst, a party spokesman. 'But it shows that in addition to our hard-core supporters, we have managed to attract new voters.'

A few months ago, the PDS began suggesting it might be able to return to parliament in October's general election through a loophole in the German electoral system that grants seats to any party winning outright in three constituencies. Sunday's results in east Berlin - where the PDS came first in six districts - now makes that prospect a near certainty.

It is all a far cry from the tumultuous days of late 1989 when the PDS emerged from the ashes of East Germany's formerly ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). With most east Germans turning their backs on anything that reminded them of their past, the party's days appeared numbered.

Membership plummeted from 2.2 million in early 1989 to its current level of 131,000, and the party is still haunted by the legacy of its Stalinist past. Despite its claims to have reformed and embraced democracy, and attempts to present a new, youthful face to the world, it was shunned by all the established parties.

As in the rest of Eastern Europe, the former communist comeback in east Germany can be attributed to the huge disillusionment experienced by many in the transition to a free market economy and a sense of betrayal. Many east Germans still recall with bitterness Chancellor Kohl's election promise in 1990 that they would soon find themselves in 'blooming landscapes'.

'Hopes were raised. But people quickly realised that instead of prosperity and security, they faced hardship and unemployment,' said Mr Fehst. 'They also felt that rather than being the joining of two equal halves, reunification with West Germany had been more like an Anschluss.'

As in Poland, Hungary and Lithuania, much of the support for the PDS comes from those who feel they have lost out since 1989. Unlike their colleagues to the east, however, east Germany's former communists know that they can never realistically dream of taking power again. While strong in eastern Germany, they are very weak in the country as a whole having failed to establish themselves in west Germany.

'With less than one per cent support in the west of the country, the long-term prospects of the PDS remain poor,' said Reiner Oschmann, editor of the former Communist Party flagship newspaper, Neues Deutschland. 'But as long as things remain tough in the east, the party can ride the wave of discontent.'