Sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ex-communists from the former East Germany are making a political comeback, drawing on savvy campaign tactics and public frustration with the weak German economy to play a possible spoiler role in the Sept. 18 national elections.
The former communists have found new strength by teaming with defectors from Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party to form the Left Party. Public opinion polls suggest the new group may gain enough votes to make it difficult for the country's mainstream political parties to form a ruling government.
Although surveys show that only 8 percent to 10 percent of Germans back the Left Party, its transformation of a collection of fringe groups into a cohesive political organization has become a nightmare for Schroeder, peeling away many supporters from his ruling coalition. The Left is hurting other parties as well and could prevent the coalition that is leading in the polls, the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, from capturing a majority.
The Left Party is the brainchild of two skilled and charismatic politicians: Oskar Lafontaine, a former finance minister under Schroeder who quit the government in 1999 after he criticized the chancellor for cozying up to big business; and Gregor Gysi, a former leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to East Germany's Communist Party.
Their prescription for Germany's high unemployment rate and fraying social safety net is simple. They want to establish an annual gross minimum wage of $21,000, as well as more generous welfare, pension and health care benefits. To pay for the huge increase in spending, they would impose a 50 percent income tax on anyone earning more than $75,000 a year and would raise taxes on businesses.
"Only when we regain some social justice, more social welfare, more real wage increases, only then can the economy recover," Gysi said in an interview with a German television station. "At least you know where you stand with us. We certainly won't succumb to the ridiculous temptation to campaign as the Party of the New Center."
The ex-communists have long enjoyed a strong base of support in the former East Germany but have struggled to win acceptance in the rest of the country, winning less than 5 percent of the vote in the previous national elections, in 2002. When they announced the new alliance and name in June, however, the group quickly shot up in the polls, winning a 12 percent approval rating.
"This brilliant move to make the party appear as a brand-new one attracted a lot of people on the left side of the political spectrum," said Thomas Petersen, a pollster with the Allensbach Institute, an opinion survey group. "I doubt it will work in the long run. It's a very unhomogeneous mix of two very different groups. But for this election, it was a brilliant move."
Analysts see the former communists as the dominant partner. The Social Democrat splinter group had the support of only about 1 percent to 3 percent in opinion polls before the new party was formed.
In the past few weeks, the party's poll numbers have dwindled a bit, partly because of the increased public scrutiny that came with its new prominence. Lafontaine in particular has taken a beating from Germany's conservative newspapers. The Bild tabloid published photos of him taking a vacation last month at a 15th-century estate on the Mediterranean island of Majorca instead of campaigning, dubbing him a "luxury leftist."
Lafontaine has struggled to shrug off the criticism that he is insensitive to the working class. "Here stands a luxury leftist, in a luxury suit, with a luxury necktie and a luxury shirt, luxury undershirt and luxury shoes," he said sarcastically when he appeared at his party's convention in Berlin two weeks ago.
Still, the Left Party's message resonates with many voters across Germany who bemoan the 11.4 percent unemployment rate -- the highest since the aftermath of World War II -- and the country's weak economic growth, which lags behind that of every other country in the European Union.
At a rally Wednesday afternoon at a Dresden community center, about 30 senior citizens turned out to voice complaints about the economy and other concerns to Katja Kipping, a Left Party candidate for parliament.
Ursula Buettner, 67, is a member of the board of directors for the community center. Many people in Dresden can't find good jobs, she said, but they can no longer count on the government to help them out, either.
"A great deal of people feel insecure," she said. "They wonder if it's worth it to work, or to stay on welfare."
Albrecht Koenitz, a 76-year-old retiree, said he was angry about recent government policies requiring people to pay more for health care. "They say it's equal rights for everybody, but that's not true," he said. "We need to fight back."
Kipping listened patiently to the gripes, but they were music to the ears of a candidate who knows her party stands a good chance of emerging from obscurity to take a key role in a new government.
"Four months ago, I couldn't have believed this would happen," she said before the rally. "If you had told me that there would be elections and that the left would be unified, I would have said you are dreaming."