Communist heirs talk social issues to German voters


BERLIN -- Nobody rants about Marx, Lenin, revolution or even the evils of capitalism at this election rally for what used to be the East German Communist Party.

About 400 people have filled up the high, sunny auditorium of a polytechnic school in Johannisthal, which is a kind of garden-apartment neighborhood in the east Berlin "bezirk" called Treptow. Berliners vote in "bezirk" elections Sunday. A bezirk is a kind of election district, with its own town hall, burgermeister and town council. Berlin has 23 bezirke. Eleven were once behind the Berlin Wall here in the east.

The Party of Democratic Socialism, the old Communist Party reconstituted, like orange juice and just about as red, is introducing its candidates for the Treptow council.

Gregor Gysi, the head of the party, is on hand to rally support for the PDS candidates. He grew up in Johannisthal, attended high school here, and his mother still lives in the neighborhood. She also complains that she never sees him except at political rallies.

Mr. Gysi, 44, is a short, powerful, energetic man with the pugnacious stance of actor Danny DeVito. He looks like Mr. DeVito, in fact, answering questions along with the local party chairman and four candidates.

"Does this look like a meeting of extremists?" asks Steffen Ruckl, a professor of library science at Humboldt University.

Well, no, it looks like a meeting of a neighborhood improvement association in, say, East Baltimore. The talk is of social security, the cost of living, jobs, abortion, even an expressway that is set to run through the neighborhood.

A youthful 43, the professor wouldn't look out of place at a local U.S. PTA meeting. He's wearing jeans, a striped shirt and sandals. You might pick him out as a second-generation librarian, but hardly as a second-generation Communist Party member.

He graduated from this school, too. So did his sister and brothers. His daughter is a fifth-grader here. We're talking very local politics.

So is Mr. Gysi. He says that victories locally give him political power on the national level.

Mr. Ruckl has to think a minute when asked if the PDS is still Marxist. Yes, he says, finally, it is the party of the Karl Marx who was a great social scientist and analyst of the market economy.

"A market economy is more efficient in meeting the needs of people today," he says. "Today a market economy is much better."

The PDS is, of course, also the heir of the party of oppression, of the mean-spirited secret police, of the Wall that sliced Berlin in two, and of its martyred dead.

But the PDS hates to be called extremist, which can cause it to be lumped together with the "radikal" right-wing parties.

All the minority parties in Sunday's elections -- from the PDS on the left to the Green environmentalists to the Republikaner right -- are being closely watched. If they do well, and they are expected to, that signals trouble for the major parties, especially Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union.

Chancellor Kohl's coalition government has shown a lot of ragged edges recently, from the resignation of the foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, to a retreat in wage settlements with public service unions, whose 11-day strike clogged the whole country.

The CDU and the Social Democratic Party -- SPD in the German abbreviation -- both slipped in local elections last month. More slips mean more talk about early national elections.

Right-wing nationalist parties are the fastest-rising in Germany, polls continue to show.

But the PDS still has a certain measured popularity in eastern Germany, and not just among nostalgic old-timers. The party consistently gets 9 percent to 11 percent of the vote, and in some districts of Berlin nearly 30 percent.

The PDS expects to get 22 percent or 23 percent Sunday in Treptow, enough to get two of the six council seats. They already have one. The Republikaner party also has a good chance of winning a seat.

PDS members call the Republikaners "fascist." And they worry about them.

"I feel something most be done against fascism and the danger of it coming back," said Mr. Ruckl's sister, Gerlinde, a history teacher. She explains why she's still a party member.

"Anti-fascism was not a law in the former DDR [communist East Germany]," she says. "It was a thing of the heart."

Now, she sees rising violence in her own school.

"In the former DDR, we didn't have such a thing as violence in school," she says. "Now we have knives and guns."

Eastern Germans feel like second-class citizens in the new Germany.

"People ask why vote for the PDS," Mr. Gysi says. "I say because this is the party that looks after the problems of east Germany."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad