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Germany: PDS Sees Itself As Champion Of East German Voters

Berlin, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As the direct heir of the East German Communist Party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) once appeared destined for the scrapheap of German history. But to considerable surprise, the PDS won its way into the national parliament in 1994 and looks like it will do so again next Sunday (Sept. 27).

The party's ebullient but controversial leader, the lawyer Gregor Gysi, believes the party can expand its current 30 seats into 35 or 40. That would mean more than doubling the number of votes it received in 1994 -- which was 300,000 out of a total 60 million voters in Germany. Most other commentators doubt whether it will gain more than 32 seats in the 672-seat parliament.

Even that would be a success for a party which is virtually a pariah to many German politicians. The irony is that Chancellor Helmut Kohl has good contacts with the former communists who formed the Hungarian government until earlier this year, and with Polish government leaders who were once members of the communist party or its allies. He considers Russian President Boris Yeltsin a good friend. But not the former east German communists.

Kohl's party does all it can to discredit the PDS and particularly Gysi, who is frequently accused of having been an informer for the East German secret police, the Stasi, at the same time as he was defending anti-communist dissidents in the courts. Gysi denies the charges.

Kohl's challenger, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, is not as publicly hostile, but he too has repeatedly said that he will not consider Gysi and the PDS as possible partners in a coalition if the Social Democrats come out on top in Sunday's election. The PDS has 90,000 members and says that 97 per cent of them are in eastern Germany. One of the party's problems is that only about 8 per cent are under 35. In contrast, the governing CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats have around 800,000 members each and about 14 per cent are under 35.

Gysi told journalists in Berlin that the party's roots in eastern Germany give it a special role as advocates of eastern worries -- not only in battling unemployment but in social matters as fighting the Kohl government's refusal to recognize professional qualifications from the former state of East Germany.

Gysi's colleague, the party chairman Lothar Bisky, wants to broaden the party's appeal by seeking to portray it as the champion of a more equitable society which would bridge the gap between rich and poor. Earlier this year, the party approved a campaign manifesto calling for increasing the take-home pay for lower and middle classes. In the PDS view this could be financed by a 21 per cent tax on all luxury goods. It has also urged new "wealth taxes" on Germany's millionaires, the banks, insurance companies and those who reap windfall profits through speculative transactions.

Unemployment is the major concern of all German political parties. Currently it is more than 10 per cent nationwide but in parts of eastern Germany it is as high as 17 per cent. The PDS seeks to combat joblessness by a sharp reduction in the overtime hours still worked in many German factories. The PDS claims more than half a million new jobs could be created just by cutting overtime in half. It also proposes reducing the 37-hour work week, which is still common in parts of German industry.

The PDS has sometimes turned to stunts to attract attention to itself in an election campaign dominated by the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. In Potsdam a few weeks ago it organized a circus as a background for a campaign speech by Gysi, who came riding into the tent on an elephant.

Talking to journalists, Gysi demonstrates a pragmatic view of how the party would operate if the Social Democrats win on Sunday and form a coalition with the Green environmental party. He says it would not offer total support for such a Government, but would judge it issue by issue. In Gysi's view this would broaden his party's role in national politics without a formal role in Government.

This approach has led Chancellor Kohl to accuse the Social Democrats of hoping to win their way into power through the "silent support" of the PDS. The Social Democrats and the Greens have repeatedly denied they would seek to form a government in such a way.