Gregor Gysi, a plump lawyer with a quick tongue, wire- rimmed glasses and a fondness for double-breasted suits, used to act on behalf of leading east German dissidents. Now some of them refuse to speak to him. Shortly after the fall of the Wall, he became the leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the renamed East German Communists. Since then, he has rebuilt the party, with remarkable success.
Though no longer the official party leader, he remains the party's circus-master. His bunte Truppe, the brightly coloured troupe, is an assorted collection of high-profile candidates with whom the PDS hopes to gain directly elected seats in the federal German parliament, the Bundestag, in elections a fortnight today.
Members of the troupe include Stefan Heym, the leading east German novelist, who was constantly at odds with the old regime; Count Heinrich von Einsiedel, a radical great-grandson of Bismarck; a pastor; and a former Olympic champion.
Mr Gysi has every reason to be pleased with himself. The PDS now regularly gains more than 20 per cent in regional elections. In the east German state of Brandenburg last month, the party came within a whisker of forcing Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats into third place. There is a clutch of elected PDS mayors all across east Germany.
In the summer, the SPD made a tactical arrangement with the PDS to form a minority government in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, thus forcing out the Christian Democrat prime minister. Since then, the SPD leader, Rudolf Scharping, has been performing rhetorical somersaults - defending the Saxony-Anhalt arrangement while denying that he would contemplate a similar accommodation in Bonn.
Mr Kohl likes to describe the PDS as 'Communists', 'extremists' and 'red-painted fascists'. But the reality is more complicated. Although the overwhelming majority of PDS members used to be in the Communist Party, much of the PDS support comes not from the old party cadres, but from the embittered and disillusioned, of whom there is no shortage in east Germany. The PDS gives them a senseof identity, which many feel they lost with the western takeover.
Bonn's propaganda against the PDS is scarcely aimed at the east at all. Rather, it is intended to impress west German voters - four-fifths of the electorate. In the east, few are impressed by horror stories of Communists around every corner. Instead, these voters see a party that is ready to roll up its sleeves - or to demand public money for this, that and the other. That can seem impressive to disgruntled voters.
Little can be seen of the 'Party of the Stasi', or 'Party of the Barbed Wire', to quote the two labels PDS opponents like to put on it. The main PDS slogan is simple, and tempting: 'Change begins with opposition.' Hardly the phrase of a party still obsessed with power - and Christian Democrats in the east speak wearily of Bonn's shrill campaign, saying it only makes their life more difficult.
Part of the nationwide importance of the PDS vote lies in the complexities of German electoral arithmetic. The rule that a party cannot gain seats in the Bonn parliament unless it gains at least 5 per cent of the national vote was waived for the first united German elections, in 1990, to enable east German parties to be more easily represented. Now that the standard rules apply again, even the strong PDS showing in the east may not be enough to take it through the 5 per cent barrier.
But if the PDS wins three or more direct mandates, it it will be allotted seats proportional to its strength - even if it fails to pass the 5 per cent mark. This could give it 30 or more seats in the Bundestag. And since it seems increasingly likely that the election may fail to produce a clear winner, the PDS could hold trump cards.
One half-solution to any parliamentary stalemate would be the Saxony-Anhalt arrangement, whereby the SPD and its likely coalition partners, the Greens, would muster more parliamentary votes for their candidate for chancellor, Mr Scharping, than the Christian Democrats could for Mr Kohl.
The SPD was far ahead in the polls at the start of this year. Then, after a blunder by Mr Scharping on increased taxes, and with a turnaround in the economy, Mr Kohl, the eternal survivor, crept into the lead.
Mr Kohl may yet cruise to victory, for the fourth time running, but there are no certainties. One poll last week suggested that the CDU might gain 42 per cent of the vote, with the SPD and the Greens combined on 48 per cent; but 40 per cent of voters would still prefer Mr Kohl as chancellor, and only 30 per cent would plump for Mr Scharping.
If the two parties are deadlocked, one option may be the 'grand coalition' of SPD and CDU. But the 'marriage of the elephants', as it is sometimes described, would reinforce the tendency in German politics towards consensus; and some argue that the grand coalition also tends to encourage the extreme parties, because there is nowhere else for voters to vent their frustration with existing policies.
Whether Mr Gysi's troupe can be classified as 'extreme' is doubtful, despite the CDU's best efforts. Mr Gysi may sometimes indulge in a touch of charming demagogy, but experience suggests he and his party are likely to be on their best parliamentary behaviour if strongly represented in the Bundestag. In that respect, the contrast with the far-right Republicans could hardly be more stark.Reuse content