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The Red Socks (June 24, 1994)

The unexpected success of the successor party to the SED, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), at the ballot box in East Germany put the established (Western) parties in a difficult situation: what response was called for, ostracism or integration? The essay analyzes the reasons behind the success of the PDS in the East and the changing party membership.

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The Party that Lights a Fire

Ostracized in the West, voted for in the East – the successors to the SED are drawing surprising support. Discontent over reunification, GDR nostalgia, or a yearning for socialism – what makes the PDS attractive?

Last Friday, around 12:30 pm, a familiar ritual began in the Bundestag. When representative Uwe-Jens Heuer of the PDS stepped to the lectern, the parliamentary group of the Union [CDU/CSU] transformed itself into a raging crowd. While Heuer spoke of his party’s SED past, heckling cries rained down on him: “nonsense,” “outrageous.”

The PDS makes their competitors’ blood boil, more so than ever. Saxony-Anhalt votes for a new Landtag [state parliament] on Sunday, and the successor to the SED could get twenty percent of the vote. It did similarly well in the European elections in several East German states. In municipal elections, the PDS has often emerged as the strongest faction, for example, in Halle, Schwerin, Rostock, Neubrandenburg, and Hoyerswerda.

A specter is haunting East Germany. Is socialism celebrating a comeback, this time in democratic guise? All of the Bonn party headquarters are in a tizzy. How to deal with the PDS? Integrate it? Ostracize it? The SPD is quarreling over whether it should get involved in coalitions.* The vice-chairman of the party, Wolfgang Thierse, wants to tolerate cooperation on the municipal level, whereas Party Chairman [Rudolf] Scharping offers preemptive assurances that the PDS will remain a political opponent. The CDU already sees the resurrection of the Popular Front of the Weimar Republic. Kohl’s deputy, Angela Merkel, accuses the Social Democrats of “throwing themselves at the PDS out of sheer opportunism.” The head of the CSU, Theo Waigel, throws a hard left-right combination punch: the PDS must be opposed with the same determination as the Republikaner [the Republicans].**

The PDS, the pariah among the parties, is misjudged in the West. It is more than just an outlet for unification frustration. And it is more than Gregor Gysi. Its success is also grounded in a social network of its own and in the cultivation of specifically East German milieus.

“We’re the party of social justice,” proclaims the slogan that echoes from the concrete walls of satellite towns. The PDS won’t be outdone by anyone it in its commitment to the common people. For example, in Schwerin it was the PDS that fought against an increase in bus fares, against an increase in garage leases, against an increase in rents and theater tickets, for more subsidized housing, and so on. Whether it’s children’s daycare facilities or green space statutes, everything interests the PDS, everything is an issue. Populism? You bet!

Whether it’s a political coffee meeting in the Große Dreesch,*** a question-and-answer session with the Landtag representative in the Weststadt, whether “Gysi is speaking” in Neu Zippendorf, the PDS, says a local reporter in Schwerin, “is present on every corner like no one but the egg-man.” The PDS local candidate, Gert Böttger, makes a point of taking “the tram every day to come into contact with the people.” Böttger has even gone to various churches to win young Christians over to his side.

Because the PDS wants to be everywhere and everything at the same time, it needs discipline and commitment and throngs of party workers, the last of which it still has from the old days. One thousand seven hundred Schweriners belong to the PDS – three times as many as to the CDU. The newly established SPD has a squad of only 250 hardy souls.

* In German politics, most federal and state governments are coalition governments; that is, two or more parties join together to form a government – eds.
** A political party at the far right of the political spectrum – eds.
*** City district on the outskirts of Schwerin (the capital of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) that was built by prefabricated slab construction during the GDR – eds.

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