AN ANGRY young man with a fiery look in his eyes was vehement in defence of his former homeland. 'East Germany was a sovereign state with its own laws and its own customs,' he stormed. 'There may have been shootings at the border - but they cannot now be judged by the laws of another land.'
The protest had been sparked by another jibe at the PDS, the successor to East Germany's formerly all-powerful Communist Party, dismissed by political opponents as the 'party of barbed-wire, border guards . . . and Stasi secret policemen'.
The modest crowd egged the young man on. He was on safe ground: a small marketplace in Marzahn, a monstrous east Berlin suburb built during the last years of Erich Honecker's rule, and a bastion of PDS support.
Party workers - who still greet each other as 'comrades' - looked on approvingly. In Marzahn, the tide of history is still moving their way. And none doubt that when Germans go to the polls on Sunday, their man will win the constituency.
'People here are fed up with border guard trials and stories about the Stasi - they want to know how they are going to be able to pay their rent and whether they will ever work again,' said Yvette Wolansky, a local party official. 'Unlike the other western-led parties, moreover, they feel we really understand their concerns.'
The PDS candidate in Marzahn is Gregor Gysi, a charismatic lawyer who used to defend East German dissidents. He took over the discredited party in the twilight of the regime at the end of 1989, steered it towards respectability and saved it from oblivion. His promises of work, cheap housing and social handouts for all have struck a chord among many east Germans for whom such things were taken for granted during the Communist era.
According to most opinion polls, the PDS is likely to win some 20 per cent of the vote in eastern Germany on Sunday, but fall just short of the 5 per cent needed nationwide to enter the Bundestag (parliament). If Mr Gysi and two colleagues win their constituencies outright, however, the party could end up sending some 30 MPs to Bonn.
'The mere fact that we have a good chance is a triumph,' says Mr Gysi. 'Westerners have tried to mow down the east completely . . . but they have not managed to get the PDS.'
Although Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats are well ahead of his main Social Democrat rivals, the strength of the small parties, including the PDS, could be decisive in determining the next government.
The possibility of the PDS holding the balance of power - though mind-boggling - cannot be ruled out. Mr Kohl chokes over his sauerkraut every time he thinks of it. Mr Gysi, for his part, positively revels in it.
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