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Germany's Future Hangs On a Remnant of Its Past

Federal election in September that may bring down long-ruling Kohl hinges on public view of the east's ex-communist party.

As the voices of singing children drift around the fair, Werner Rischer shades himself from the sun. Around him, mostly elderly couples munch on bratwursts as they thread through the crowd.

This festival is no ordinary street fair: Its lighthearted mood belies the fact that the sponsor is a political party at the center of a heated debate on Germany's future.

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As the country prepares for elections in September, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) - direct successor to the East German Communists - remains a thorn in the side of conservative Germans.

Among the festival's arts and crafts stands, peddlers sell old Soviet propaganda posters and the children's chorus sings songs of the Cuban revolution.

Mr. Rischer, a former Communist Party functionary in East Germany, seems comfortable amid this odd assemblage of cold-war remnants. "I joined the Communist Party in 1945 so that there would never be fascism again," he says. As a teenager, he had been drafted to fight in Adolf Hitler's desperate last stand against the Allies.

After communism came crashing down nine years ago, Rischer made his new political home in the PDS. "I was against reunification," he says. "Like many others, I was for a better East Germany."

Polls show western Germans are generally disdainful of the PDS - only about 2 percent of its 100,000 members are registered in the West - and an aggressive campaign against the former Communist Party has alienated many eastern Germans.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who faces his most serious threat to reelection after 16 years in power, warns that if his opponent, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder, can form a majority in the new parliament only by asking for PDS support, Germany heads down "the path to a left-wing republic." And this month, Mr. Kohl's new spokesman, Otto Hauser, caused nationwide outrage when he compared the East German communist regime to the Nazis.

Many eastern members of Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) argue that instead of using scare tactics that could be misconstrued as an affront to all eastern Germans, the CDU should focus on issues. "Nothing is better for the PDS than the Christian Democrats keeping it in the media," says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

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As it is, the PDS faces a number of serious problems. The party holds 30 of the 672 seats in the Bundestag, the federal parliament, and is represented in all eastern German state assemblies. Yet while the PDS captures about one-fifth of the vote in eastern Germany, recent polls indicate that its support could be diluted enough in a nationwide election to prevent it from winning the minimum 5 percent of the vote necessary to have delegates in parliament.

Furthermore, the party is hounded by a dubious past. Only a month after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the discredited East German Communists recast themselves as the PDS. More than 2 million members quit the party. Those who remained often have to fend off charges that they cooperated with the Stasi, the East German secret police.

Last month a parliamentary committee ruled that Gregor Gysi, the charismatic leader of the PDS in the Bundestag, had compromised information on his clients while working as a lawyer in East Germany. Party members reject the ruling as a political move.

"For me, it's certain that Gysi did not work for the Stasi," says Dieter Lober, a 30-year party member. Still, Mr. Lober concedes, "there's a lot of nonsense to be ashamed of now. East Germany failed because of a lack of democracy."

Such frankness about the past is not always forthcoming. Hard-line remnants within the PDS are under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors extremist political movements. And the PDS is struggling to sign up recruits, since more than half of its members are over 65.

"Many young people want to change the future of the party," says Sabine Rattay, an unemployed accountant. Ms. Rattay says she boycotted communist youth activities as a girl and does not vote for the party. But, she says, PDS events give eastern Germans a sense of belonging. "It's too bad that after reunification the positive aspects from both states were not combined to make a new Germany," she says.

Mr. Lober shares her wistfulness.

The retired policeman concedes that with their current pensions, he and his wife are better off than they were in the old East Germany. "But that's not the point. Money isn't the only thing that counts," he says. "I want to feel that I can say this Germany is my home."

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