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State elections a test for Germany's left

Members of former East Germany's ruling communist party could emerge as a powerful force in Sunday polls.

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The Left has made Hesse, which is home to Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital, their proving ground. Pollsters say the party is likely to get 5 percent of the vote, the threshold it needs to cross to gain representation in the state legislature. Gregor Gysi, a former East German lawyer and one of the main architects of the party's resurgence, has made clear that victory in Hesse is just a stepping stone on the road to Berlin.

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"It would mean a cultural shift in this country," Mr. Gysi told reporters in Wiesbaden while out on the campaign trail. "If we make it into parliament in one or more western states, that means people are saying they want a political culture that is further to the left than the SPD."

Hesse is also a political laboratory for the SPD. The key candidates in Hesse are the same people who waged bitter campaign against the SPD's economic reforms. If the SPD wins in Hesse on a leftist ticket, then the party is likely to swing even further left.

"Facing this inner-party confrontation, [SPD party chairman Kurt] Beck is trying to take the party back to its roots," says Bernhard Wessels, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "They are closely watching Hesse; it will have implications for the federal election campaign."

The SPD front-runner in Hesse is Andrea Ypsilanti, the daughter of an immigrant auto worker. If elected, she has promised to work for a federal tax on the wealthy and to shut down not only the state's nuclear power plants but also its coal-fired power plants.

Her CDU rival, the incumbent governor Roland Koch, is hoping to galvanize conservative voters. He tried to make political hay out of an attack in Munich by immigrant youths on a pensioner, sparking a national debate about xenophobia. Ms. Ypsilanti and Mr. Koch are now running neck-and-neck. The problem for both of them is that if the election ends up in a dead heat, neither may be able to form a coalition that gives them a stable majority.

The thought that the former East German Communist Party could wield any power in Germany again angers the victims of the regime. A year after unification, Lengsfeld was able to read the file the Stasi secret police kept on her. In it she discovered that her husband had been a Stasi spy for years, charged with reporting on her activities.

"Nothing has changed in the party. There are a lot of new faces, but the ones who have anything to say are from the old guard," says Lengsfeld.

SPD leaders say they will never form a coalition with The Left in a western state or at the federal level. But Lengsfeld doesn't believe them. "If there is a numerical majority with The Left, and even if it's just one vote, you can bet your life on it that the SPD will jump at the chance," she says.