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Germany's Gregor Gysi elected president of European Left

The charismatic and moderate Gregor Gysi is now the head of the European association of socialist and communist parties. One initial task will be for him to reconcile the European Left with the EU.

On the second day of its three-day congress in Berlin, the Party of the European Left (EL) has elected 68-year-old Gregor Gysi, the former leader of Germany's Left Party ("Die Linke") as its new president. He succeeds French communist Pierre Laurent. Gysi ran unopposed.

Together with his vice-presidents, he was elected with 67.6 percent of the vote.

"Resistance to austerity policies is growing," Gysi said in his acceptance speech on Saturday. "The left has to support this resistance. After 1945, after the worst crimes against humanity in history, Germany received the Marshall Plan. And what are we doing with Southern Europe? We're destroying it in the interests of saving money. Where is the Marshall Plan for Southern Europe?"

The EL is a party and association of democratic-socialist and communist parties from 27 countries both inside and outside the EU. It includes not just the Left Party in Germany, but also the Coalition of the Radical Left of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

The influence of the EL, which currently has 27 representatives in the European Parliament, is fairly limited. Gysi hopes he can develop it into a force particularly in opposition to the growing trend of right-wing populism in Europe.

"We have a European Union in a desolate situation." Gysi said. "There are right-wing populists throughout Europe and a lurch to the right in the US. That is a challenge for we socialists. We have to take this seriously."

The EL presidency is just the latest office Gysi has held in a political career stretching back almost five decades.

Germany's most recognizable socialist

Born in the Treptow district of East Berlin, Gysi was the son of the minister of culture in communist East Germany and became not only the country's youngest ever lawyer but one of the few attorneys allowed to practice independently of the government. He rose to prominence defending several leading members of the East German opposition and was accused of informing on them to the East German secret police - an accusation that was never proven.

In 1967, Gysi joined the East German Socialist Union Party (SED) and served as a member of parliament where he become known as one of that body's most eloquent speakers. In December 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he became party chairman and as of 1990 a member of parliament in the reunited German Bundestag. He continued as chairman of the Party of Democratic Socialism, which succeeded the SED and eventually became the Left Party, until 1993.

Deutschland DDR SED-Sonderparteitag 1989 in Berlin (ullstein bild - ADN-Bildarchiv)

Gysi was a key figure in German reunification

In 2002, he was a member of the local Berlin parliament and served as city senator for economics, labor and women's affairs but was forced to resign that year after becoming embroiled in a scandal concerning private use frequent-flyer credits racked up on official flights.

He made his political comeback in 2005, campaigning as the Left Party's lead candidate in that year's national elections and reentering the Bundestag. There he served as parliamentary leader, until deciding to give up that position and the party's chairmanship in 2015. But he has said he will stand for re-election to the Bundestag in the German national election next September.

Gysi's quick-witted eloquence has made him a staple on the political talk shows so beloved in Germany and easily the country's most recognized socialist. Germany's Left Party is one of the biggest parts of the EL in terms of both national and European MPs, so Gysi is a logical choice to lead the alliance, although his age and past health problems were evident in his acceptance speech.

But the job won't be easy. One of his tasks will be to find a common policy toward the European Union - an issue that has deeply divided his own domestic party.

No consensus on the EU

Der Vorstand der Linken-Fraktion im Bundestag, Beschattung der Fraktionsmitglieder (dapd)

Gysi has faced resistance in Germany from Eurosceptics like Wagenknecht (left)

Gysi has made it clear that he wants the EL to lead the cause of reforming, not doing away with the EU.

"I sharply criticize the EU, but I don't want to let it go under," Gysi said in his acceptance speech. "Politically, the old national states cannot play any role whatsoever. Imagine Luxembourg intervening in Middle [East] politics."

That reflects the attitudes of some - but only some - in his own Left Party in Germany.

"It's important not to give up the EU as a political instrument," Wulf Gallert, the Left Party's European spokesman in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, said in a radio interview on Saturday before Gysi's election. "We should make the best of the situation. Anything else would be completely impractical or even highly dangerous."

At the same time, the Left Party's current national leadership has been charting an increasingly anti-EU course.

"I think that the EU's development has run contrary to the needs of the people," Left Party co-chairwoman Sahra Wagenknecht said in an interview with the Russia state broadcaster Russia Today earlier in December. "That's forcing more and more people to reject this kind of Europe."

Gysi and Wagenknecht have been political rivals for years and spent much of 2017 pursuing a public feud. And Gysi is going to have to deal with a host of other detractors in his new post, since the European Left is a very diverse and fractious organization.

European Left EL (European Left)

The EL represents a broad spectrum of interests

Party on the left, leader in the middle

Like the Left Party, the EL is quite critical of the European Union, with Portugal's Left Bloc, for instance, blaming Brussels for high unemployment in the country and wanting to leave the union.

Policies within the EL encompass everything from opposition to free-trade deals like TTIP and CETA, decriminalizing prostitution and ending tax evasion to feminism, environmentalism and hostility toward austerity programs. It's skeptical toward the US and NATO and supports the rebellions of the Kurds against Turkey and the Palestinians against Israel.

But the spectrum of views within the EL is huge, ranging from left-wing radicalism to fairly moderate democratic socialism. Having shown in the past that he can work with centrist political parties in Germany, Gregor Gysi falls very much into the latter category despite a passionate election speech that castigated EU austerity policies and attacked many policies of the German government under Angela Merkel.

The question is whether the Party of European Left is disciplined enough to take its cues in the future from a 68-year-old man of the middle.

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