Mary Dejevsky: Rust-belt support transforms fortunes of former communist

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Germany's rust-belt, the Ruhrgebiet, is undergoing a faltering revival, but it remains perfect campaigning territory for the far-left party, the Left. One half of the party's populist dual leadership, the engaging Gregor Gysi, stopped off yesterday for a couple of hours in Duisburg, the erstwhile city of steel. He drew an enthusiastic crowd of 400 or so, undaunted by drizzle that turned to a downpour.

Running late as usual, Mr Gysi jumped out of the first in a small cavalcade of Audis – at which a local wag shouted "Why not in an Opel, Mr Gysi?" – and bounded on to the platform.

In 20 years, Mr Gysi has transformed himself from East German communist apparatchik, albeit of the feistier, straighter-talking variety, into a fighting politician able to hack it in mainstream German politics and a sought-after participant in talk shows. He has that combination of energy and demotic eloquence that holds an audience, and he sensed friendly vibes from an audience gathered in the concrete pedestrian precinct that passes – thanks largely to British Second World War bombing – for the city centre.

Before this welcome distraction, Duisburg had seemed a strangely depopulated city; empty shops, shoes, jackets, you name it, offered at €5 apiece; hotdogs €1 each; parking – as one happy driver noted – a third of the price in nearby Dusseldorf. So Mr Gysi's campaign pitch fell on receptive ears.

Why raise the retirement age to 67 when a whole lot of people can't find jobs when they are well under 65? Rescind the "humiliating" laws on social benefits, which require unemployed Germans to take work where it exists rather than where they would like it. Introduce a statutory minimum wage – even, Mr Gysi noted, Britain has one! Tax the rich.

Even more popular than the politics of envy, though, judging by the response from this mostly older and far from affluent audience, was his rousing call to bring German troops home.

Afghanistan, having been largely ignored through the early weeks of the campaign, bounded on to the agenda three weeks ago after more than 70 Afghans were killed in a US air strike called down, in a perverse twist of fate, by a German officer. A country with our history, Mr Gysi cried, has no business stationing troops abroad. "You don't fight terror with war; you don't deploy the Bundeswehr to stop women being stoned or make sure girls go to school. These are noble aims, but there are much better ways of achieving them." His audience applauded heartily.

No wonder the Social Democrats have hinted they would like a slice of the Left's Afghan policy.