Red scare becomes intriguing factor in otherwise tame German elections

October 09, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- Like frightened elephants screeching at a mouse, Germany's mainstream political leaders are panicking at the sight of a short, bald communist lawyer in wire rim glasses.

His name is Gregor Gysi, and the fear is not unwarranted. With the right combination of votes next Sunday, Mr. Gysi's small core of regrouped east German communists could end up holding the balance of power in picking Germany's next chancellor.

The emergence of this once impossible prospect -- communists as kingmakers -- has scared Chancellor Helmut Kohl into a time warp of Cold War bombast. Once confident that the Red Menace was buried five years ago in the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Kohl now warns of "fascists in red paint" who would lead the country to ruin.

They hardly have the strength for that. No more than 5 percent of the German electorate is likely to vote for the communists, who now call themselves the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS. Nor is the PDS a party of Karl Marx, much less of Josef Stalin. Its ideology is an evolving mishmash -- a -- of Marxism here, a stir of free enterprise there -- and the party has gained ground by

recruiting voters, not secret police.

But in an electoral system where ruling coalitions rise and fall on the shifts of a few percentage points, the PDS could indeed wreck Mr. Kohl's chances for re-election, upsetting the current balance enough to throw his Christian Democratic Union out of power after a reign of more than 12 years.

The main opposition party, the Social Democrats, seem just as frightened of the PDS, worrying that they will only be able to topple Mr. Kohl with PDS help, a prospect they've vowed to reject.

"The established parties think that this is an affront," Mr. Gysi said in an interview. "They feel they cannot submit to anything, especially not to a party which originated from the SED [the old Communist Party], the party which was responsible for the German Democratic Republic They cannot believe this. . . . So now they have to call up the red scare deep down in people's minds."

The red scare has become the most intriguing factor in an otherwise dreary election year. Germans seem gripped by the same electoral crankiness haunting every capital of the industrialized world, from Washington to London to Tokyo.

The disillusionment is especially acute in former East Germany. During the first four years of unification, millions of east Germans have lost their jobs as the western bureaucracy tossed their decrepit industry on the scrap heap. In return for new freedoms and better consumer goods, which many now take for granted, they have lost the old system's guarantees of cheap housing and free child care. They must also hack through Bonn's baffling jungle of red tape.

"It is more difficult to get pension money now, too many papers to fill in," moaned Karl Reisinger, a 61-year-old electronics worker who lost his job four years ago when the government shut down his company. "This kind of thing is very difficult here. In East Germany, it was much easier."

For such people, the growing appeal of the PDS has little to do with ideology and much to do with a tactic that has helped U.S. members of Congress survive for years -- good constituent service. The PDS has made itself valuable simply by being more attuned to the adjustment woes of east Germans.

"We have a different political style," party chairman Lothar Bisky explained. "We work for the people in the communities. We are there when they need us. This is new, and people know this."

Some appeal is also traceable to Mr. Gysi himself. Not only is he the party's parliamentary leader; he is its personal standard-bearer. His is the face most often on television, and he is the one who dares to lead campaign safaris into the unwelcoming west, where his wit and charisma have earned grudging admiration.

At a recent campaign appearance in Bonn, the heart of western smugness, Mr. Gysi drew a laugh from a crowd of the curious when he accused the Bonn government of building a regulatory wall around the country to keep out immigrants, then said, "We know all about walls. Believe us, they don't solve anything."

An undoubted -- of spice in the cold oatmeal of German politics.

"He has many un-German characteristics," said one admirer, Juergen Kuttner, host of a popular east German radio talk show in Potsdam. "He is a Jew [Mr. Gysi's father was Jewish], has a Communist background, is intellectual. Very refreshing. We need people like him here."

Polls show that about one fifth of east Germans will vote for the PDS, and the party's strength is greatest in cities, particularly east Berlin. The rising popularity parallels similar shifts all across the former East Bloc, such as in Poland and Hungary, where voters have also found it hard adjusting to the sink-or-swim atmosphere of the free market.

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