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The prime minister of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, neither forgives nor forgets. Stoiber, the right-wing Christian Democratic Union candidate for German chancellor in 2002, who should have taken the election at a walk, lost to Gerhard Schroeder by a mere 6,000 votes. Stoiber blames the East Germans for his loss. Immediately following his campaign remarks "We will not permit the frustrated East Germans to determine the outcome of the elections" and "Unfortunately, not everywhere is the population as wise as it is in Bavaria," his party's standing plummeted in the east from first to third place, coming in after the extreme-left party and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Now, with the gap between Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) narrowing from 21 percent in June to between 7 and 9 percent this week, many were quick to see history repeating itself. The new radical Left Party, according to the polls, will garner about 30 percent of the vote in the east. As the third-largest party, it will apparently become the political fulcrum, ahead of the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, who are the traditional partners of the big parties. Even if they don't prevent Merkel from winning, the Left Party might shuffle the cards and keep her from putting together the coalition she seeks with the liberals.

Among those primarily responsible for Stoiber's 2002 defeat was Gregor Gysi, the leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former Communist Party. During the present campaign, Gysi and his party joined with Social Democratic Party defectors headed by former party chairman Oskar Lafontaine, who had bolted the party to form the new Left Party.

The Social Democrats and the new Left Party despise each other. Schroeder declared repeatedly (perhaps only for tactical reasons) that he would prefer to go home if his third term in office depended on the "demons" from the new left joining his government. Others believe that if Schroeder finds his back against the wall, he will find a way to swallow his electoral slogans.

In an interview with Haaretz, Gysi mocked the chancellor's policy. In any case, Gysi said, he had no intention of joining a government headed by Schroeder, at least not now, with the chancellor's party abandoning its ideology. "The current coalition's perceptions and actions on economic policy are way too different from ours. We would lose a lot of credibility if we joined a coalition with the SPD in its present state. That could change in a couple of years, however, provided the SPD returns to its old virtues."

"The SPD would be much more coherent if it gave up its inclination toward neoliberalism," Gysi added. "It's not that neoliberalism is supported by a vast majority of the SPD, it was just forced upon the party's social wing by the people surrounding Schroeder. It's characteristic that the SPD has rediscovered its sense for social responsibility for the election campaign, which it very much missed while in government."

The pundits warn that a coalition of socialists, Greens and the new Left Party will lead to a capital drain and cause serious damage to the already ailing German economy. Gysi is not concerned. "Business warns of that effect in any country before elections that offer a good prospective for the political left," he said. "That's pure scare stories. Businesses make their decisions considering where they can do good business, and that will stay the case in Germany for a long time. Businesses just want to make profits and they will not leave a market such as Germany just because all of a sudden some leftists are in parliament."

The new left's criticism of Schroeder's policies deteriorated during the campaign to a dangerous level of demogoguery: Lafontaine called the moderate reforms proposed by Schroeder schandgesetze ("laws of shame") a term reminiscent of the schandfriede, the "peace of shame," used by right-wingers in the Weimar Republic to slam the attempts by liberal politicians to build a democratic society under the constraints of the Versailles Treaty. Lafontaine's critics said the terminology was an attempt to revive Nazi concepts with a wink at protest voters, among them supporters of the extreme right. That was the opinion of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who did not hesitate to compare Lafontaine to right-wing extremist Joerg Haider.

When asked about the populist rhetoric of his party colleague, Gysi said, "We demand a ban on all right-wing extremist parties, and our members and supporters are often involved, and in great numbers, when Nazi rallies through the inner cities are to be blocked."

Gysi denies his party is "hunting for votes" on the extreme right. But he does seem encouraged by their attraction to it. "Our arguments are factual. It might be that voters who previously did not see any alternative and voted right-wing out of protest against the established parties are now perceiving us as a realistic option for social policies. If the right-wing were to lose votes as a consequence, that's desirable, isn't it?" he said.

Does the fact that some of Gysi's family is of Jewish origin - his grandmother on his father's side and his great-grandfather on his mother's side - have significance to him? "Of course, that's something of special significance, particularly here in Germany. But that's a personal matter. For me, it's not supposed to play a role in politics - there I am a socialist."

Witty, sophisticated, sharp - these are some of the superlatives commentators use when describing Gysi's considerable charisma. His personal biography is full of fascinating details linked to his political career. Gysi, 57, is seen as a courageous lawyer who defended dissidents in East Germany. However, a parliamentary investigative committee in 1998 published a report that Gysi had been in the service of the Stasi, the East German secret police, between 1978 and 1986, spying on opponents of the regime whom he was defending, a charge Gysi said was a political smear.

When asked about the fact that the party he now leads was born of the SED, the Stalinist party that controlled East Germany and was one of the most anti-Israel parties in the world, he responded, "the SED's foreign policy was formed in the context of the Cold War. We hardly have any relation to it now, particularly when it comes to our relations with Israel. However I won't hide that we endorse a solution of the Middle East conflict that leads to a sovereign Palestinian state next to a secure Israeli state. Thus, our position concurs with that of the Israeli left."