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Germany

Former Communists back Reformist Party Program

The successor party to East Germany's communists approved sweeping changes its program on Sunday, voting to embrace capitalism and the use of military force abroad. Whether it will aid the beleaguered PDS is unclear.

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PDS chief Lothar Bisky tries to tack some capitalism onto socialism.

In an attempt to make its way out of the political wilderness, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) dramatically altered course at a party congress in the eastern German town of Chemnitz over the weekend. More than 77 percent of the delegates attending the two-day congress backed the new party program pushed by the PDS’ modernizing leader Lothar Bisky.

That was more than the two-thirds majority needed to approve shedding much of the political baggage that Bisky blames for leading the party to a crushing defeat in national elections last year. Besides agreeing to socialism with capitalism overtones and military force under the U.N. charter, the PDS also took a harder line with its former incarnation as the SED, which was East Germany’s communist party.

“This is an important step back into politics,” Bisky said after the vote, calling it a “relevant, modern and good” program. “Here in Chemnitz the PDS won and nobody lost.”

Although the irony was no doubt lost on many PDS delegates, Chemnitz was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany to honor the birthplace of the communist philosopher. Now in the same town they had admitted that society needed some “entrepreneurial action and profit interests” for innovation and progress.

Struggling after the Cold War

For more than a decade, the PDS has struggled to find its way in the post-Cold War world. The new modernizing tack is largely Bisky’s effort to stamp his authority on the PDS after he took the helm of the beleaguered party at the end of June amidst a leadership vacuum. Within the past year, the party’s intellectual leader, the charismatic Gregor Gysi left politics as well as chairwoman Gabi Zimmer. Bisky, who led the party for much of the 1990s, was called in as an emergency solution as traditionalists and reformers battled each other.

Gabi Zimmer bei Abstimmung

Giving reforms the red card.

By trying to push the party in a more mainstream direction, Bisky hopes to lead the PDS back into the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, in 2006. Crushed in national elections last year, the PDS only managed to get to members of parliament directly elected to the Bundestag and the party lost its official federal party status.

Under its more modern program, the PDS will hope to attract disaffected backers of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats, who are currently deeply unpopular for trying to push through painful economic reforms and welfare cuts.

Alienating the hardliners

But the new PDS program could also end up alienating some of the party’s more left-wing supporters. “Even the best regulated capitalism remains capitalism,” railed hardliner Sahra Wagenknecht.

Previously rejecting the use of military force, the PDS now accepts it as a final option so long as it is backed by the United Nations Security Council. In light of U.S.-led war against Iraq this year, the party has to be convinced, however, that the world’s superpowers have not misused the Security Council.

“We remain the anti-war party and we will engage ourselves for a peaceful and socially oriented Europe,” Bisky told the delegates. Bisky, who was recently faced renew accusations of working for East Germany’s secret police know as the Stasi also pushed for taking a more critical line with the SED and its actions. The new program blamed the communist party for "painful mistakes, failures of civilization and crimes."

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