BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's hard left could imitate the relative success of French radicals in the first round of the presidential vote there if it concentrates on attacking Chancellor Angela Merkel's European austerity drive, a leading German leftist said on Tuesday.
Senior Left party parliamentarian Sahra Wagenknecht told Reuters her party had more to offer disenchanted voters than the upstart Pirates, who came from nowhere to become the third force in German politics in the latest opinion polls.
The Left, descended from East Germany's communist regime, has seen support shrink to 7 percent in polls from 11.9 percent in 2009's federal elections, its appeal blunted by the economic success of Germany even during the euro zone crisis.
Wagenknecht said supporters had been "scared away" by an anachronistic internal debate about communism, a row over a birthday card for Cuba's Fidel Castro and a leadership debate.
With little difference between Merkel's conservatives and the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens on how to tackle the euro crisis, Wagenknecht said the Left was Germany's only real opposition to the Christian Democratic (CDU) leader's push for budget cuts for Greece, Spain and Portugal.
"Our mistake for the last two years has been to let other things eclipse this core issue, meaning lots of people have not taken seriously the Left's proposals for a Europe-wide debt haircut, a tax on the rich to resolve the crisis and direct European Central Bank credits to states," said Wagenknecht.
The 42-year-old former communist firebrand, a party vice-president, is touted as a potential replacement for one of its two co-leaders who has resigned. The twin leadership is meant to ensure balance between the genders and moderates and hardliners.
With Merkel increasingly blamed for recession in Europe, the Left politician said: "If Merkel's course is enforced, Europe will fall into decline and right-wing populists will take advantage of the frustration, disappointment and anger."
She said the far right's success in France was evidence of this risk. But the former European Parliament member was also encouraged by the 10.9 percent support for French radical Jean-Luc Melenchon, seeking higher minimum pay and to tax the rich.
"I am convinced his strong message made the Socialist candidate (Francois) Hollande also take a relatively left-wing stance on social issues," she said.
She drew comparisons with Germany's Left and SPD, who both rule out a coalition at federal level while cooperating in some former East German states where the Left has deep roots.
"When there is no strong Left alongside them, the Social Democrats tend to be wishy washy and confused," she said.
For that reason she said it was vital her party do better than usual in May's key election in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Left has a low profile.
It just passed the 5 percent threshold for entering the state assembly in 2010 and may not even reach that level this time, polls suggest. The SPD is forecast to win re-election after its minority government collapsed earlier this year.
With the Pirates winning their first seats in state after state and set to enter the national parliament next year, the Left - like other parties - wants to learn from their success.
But Wagenknecht said the Pirates' powers of persuasion via social networking might not work on many lower-income Germans who tend to vote Left and cannot afford Internet connections.
Wagenknecht, partner of former Left leader Oskar Lafontaine, said the Pirates "set themselves up as opponents of established political parties but don't back that up. I think many people who vote for the Pirates will be disappointed."
Reporting by Stephen Brown