DORTMUND, Germany, Sept 1998 – Of all the candidates campaigning in this month’s German general election, few can have a more daunting task than Sahra Wagenknecht in Dortmund.

The 29-year-old communist from eastern Germany is trying to capture a constituency in the industrial west, the Ruhr Valley heartland of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

She hopes SPD supporters disappointed by the party’s move towards the centre, driven by its pragmatic candidate for chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, will switch to her.

“Go on, vote really red!” urges a slogan on one Wagenknecht poster. “Put red socks on Schroeder!” says another, playing on the slang term sometimes used to describe the communists.

“In my opinion, the SPD of today is not left-wing any more and I think many people have noticed that this party is no longer looking after their interests,” Wagenknecht told Reuters.

“That’s why it’s necessary to establish a left-wing alternative,” said Wagenknecht, whose youth, striking looks and hard left views have made her something of a media celebrity.

“Otherwise, there’s a danger that this discontent will be expressed in votes for the far right,” she added.

Starting from a base of less than two percent support from the last election, Wagenknecht is running a high-profile campaign aiming to prove her party is not an east German lobby group but has something to say to the whole country.

Step off a train at Dortmund’s main station and you’re confronted by a giant poster bearing the word “Justice!” and the red and white logo of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

The PDS is the successor to the communist party which ruled the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It still enjoys considerable support in the east.

But in the west it is widely viewed either as irrelevant or is despised for the Stalinist oppression of its predecessor. Its support runs at about one or two percent.

One-woman mission

Wagenknecht is on a one woman mission to change all that. Her picture is almost as ubiquitous in Dortmund as the yellow and black colours of the city’s famous football club.

Landing Wagenknecht, the only east German standing for the PDS in the west, was a coup for the Dortmund branch and officials have made the most of their well-known candidate.

Journalists from across Germany have come to report on Wagenknecht, whose old-fashioned outfits and dark hair swept back in a bun have sparked comparisons with the legendary German communist Rosa Luxemburg.

Pollsters believe Wagenknecht’s celebrity value may bring in a few more votes in Dortmund on September 27 but say western voters in general have very little time for her party.

“The PDS in the West has absolutely no chance,” said Manfred Guellner, a pollster with the Forsa research group. “It’s remained an east German party.”

Guellner said the SPD’s move to the centre could open up a gap on the left but the PDS was not well-placed to fill it.

“The PDS has two deficits,” he said. “First, they have no personalities from western Germany. Secondly, their programme and history remain centred in eastern Germany.”

Wagenknecht, fresh from a morning of canvassing at a local outdoor market, admits the party’s association with the old communist government is problematic. Voters ask her if she wants to rebuild the Berlin Wall in the Ruhr Valley.

“Then I point out our detailed policies and that we view the GDR critically and that we’re not trying to copy what we had then but that we’ve got another approach,” she said.

“Then the conversation comes very quickly to the present and you see that what’s bothering people is not the GDR. I mean, here in the Ruhr Valley, what do people care about the history of the GDR? They care about what affects them every day.”

East and west share same problems

Wagenknecht says the problems of a city like Dortmund, a traditional centre for heavy industry such as steelmaking with an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent, are not so different from those faced by towns in the economically depressed east.

“We have similar structural breakdowns to those in the east. Industry moves away and nothing new comes in its place, or what comes are low-paid jobs in the service sector which offer no prospects,” she said.

Wagenknecht first sprang to prominence in early 1995. Then a student aged 25, she emerged as the most prominent critic of the party leadership’s moves to tone down the PDS’s communist rhetoric and pursue a more moderate path.

She insists that PDS leaders are backing her campaign in Dortmund but she doesn’t appear to have moderated her own hardline views in return.

“I think that if we’re to find acceptance, it’ll be as a really left-wing party and as a party that says long term we don’t just want to play around with capitalism, we want to call this economic system into question,” she said.

Her campaign in Dortmund, a city of some 600,000 people, aims not just at disillusioned old Social Democrats.

“There are also people who are so frustrated that they either don’t vote at all or potentially could vote for the far right, not because they’re Nazis but because they don’t see any other way to express their anger,” she said.

Wagenknecht says she would like to win the election but accepts it is a tall order to defeat the sitting SPD member of parliament, Hans-Eberhard Urbaniak, who won more than 53 percent of the vote in the last election.

“I also see what I’m doing here as longer term. I won’t disappear from Dortmund after September 27,” she said. “I think it’s very important that we establish ourselves here in the long term and I’d like to contribute to that.”

(c) Reuters News