New SPD leader courts former Communists

IMRE KARACS

Bonn

A wink from Germany's largest opposition party to the heirs of the Communist regime in the east has shattered the biggest taboo in national politics, significantly shortening the odds on a future left-wing government.

The initiative comes from Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democrats' new leader. Yesterday he indicated for the first time that the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successors to East Germany's rulers, should no longer be treated like a leper colony. "We must give everyone a chance to contribute to our democracy," Mr Lafontaine told Der Spiegel.

He had already announced that he would meet the PDS leader, Gregor Gysi. In yesterday's statement he spelled out his reason bluntly: "Despite all the friction ... there is a majority for the left-wing camp."

Though that majority eludes them in the present parliament, opinion polls show that the combined forces of Social Democrats, Greens and the PDS could outgun the conservative coalition if elections were held tomorrow. The Greens and the PDS have gained voters since last year's general elections, and the struggling Social Democrats improved by six points when they ditched their Dalek-like leader, Rudolf Scharping, at last week's party conference.

But such arithmetic takes no account of the inevitable backlash among Mr Lafontaine's voters. Revulsion towards the PDS is universal in the western part of the country, but especially palpable among the Social Democrats. Contacts between MPs from the two parties are non-existent, and when politicians do appear together occasionally on television, the Social Democrats squirm at the sight of their would-be comrades from the east.

Their loathing is shared by most of the voters. Though the PDS has repudiated the regime of Erich Honecker and distanced itself from his henchmen, many of its politicians now in parliament were small cogs in the wheel of East Germany's machine of oppression.

Reminders of the East's legacy are omnipresent. Should they forget, Germans are about to be treated to a large dose of the evils of the past, as six members of the former Politburo stand trial for the killing of refugees fleeing to the West. Egon Krenz, the last general secretary of the ruling party, and his five colleagues are charged with ordering the shoot-to-kill policy, a crime for which only humble border guards have gone to jail so far.

But if the PDS has an image problem, it has done its leaders no harm in the east. Its recent successes, particularly in last month's regional elections, when it contributed to a heavy Social Democrat defeat, are the main reason Mr Lafontaine seeks an accommodation. Despite an upswing in the eastern economy, left-wing voters there seem less inclined than ever to conform to western political tastes. The Social Democrats and the Greens are making no headway as their natural base is eaten away by the PDS.

Until now, the Social Democrat tactic in the east was to ignore the PDS, hoping it will fade away. That is not going to happen, so Mr Lafontaine must find a new tack. But conferring respectability on post-Communists will only enhance their standing and may further erode the Social Democrat vote.

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