By Hans-Edzard Busemann
GOETTINGEN, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's Left party spurned an experienced campaign manager and instead picked two little-known candidates to lead the far-left alliance through the worst crisis in its four-year history at a tumultuous party congress on Saturday.
Amid warnings from other leaders that the party was showing signs of disintegration, delegates to the Left party's annual congress elected western German hard-line leftist Bernd Riexinger and little-known easterner Katja Kipping as co-leaders of the second largest opposition party in parliament.
Riexinger unexpectedly defeated Dietmar Bartsch, a respected and experienced leader of the powerful eastern wing of the party, in a close vote on Saturday evening that could exacerbate the east-west divisions that have damaged the party's standing in recent weeks.
Riexinger, until Saturday a regional leader who failed to guide the Left party into the state assembly in a 2011 election in Baden-Wuerttemberg with a mere 2.8 percent of the vote, beat Bartsch by a 297-251 margin.
Riexinger was sent into the race as a late entry by party left-wingers to thwart Bartsch, an arch-rival of former Left leader Oskar Lafontaine.
Gregor Gysi, a powerful leader in the east and one of the party's two chairs in parliament, attacked the western wing of the party in a speech earlier on Saturday.
"I cannot accept all this arrogance towards easterners," Gysi said. "It reminds me of the western arrogance towards the east at the time of German unification. Why can't you accept that we're a major political force in the east? And in the west just a small splinter party? I can't understand that."
Gysi said the party, which is one of the biggest political forces in most eastern states, was filled with hatred at the moment and that he was fed up with the infighting.
"I've had enough," he said. "Either we're capable of cooperating to pick leaders or we're not. In that case, I'd say quite openly: it would be fairer if we simply split up than to continue a failed marriage filled with hatred, unfair tricks and dirty fouls."
MERKEL RE-ELECTION HOPES UNDERMINED?
Earlier, outgoing Co-Chairman Klaus Ernst warned that the Left risked disintegration in the fight for supremacy between eastern and western wings, a divide that could undermine the re-election prospects of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The party, which holds 76 of the 622 seats in parliament, could fall below the 5 percent threshold for voter support and thus boost the chances of the centre-left Social Democrats, or SPD, and Greens winning a majority over Merkel's conservatives in 2013.
The Left party polled 11.9 percent of the vote in 2009 elections, but its support has slipped to 7 percent amid the row between the pragmatic eastern wing, descended from former East Germany's communists, and more radical western leftists.
If the Left party falls below the electoral hurdle next year, the SPD and Greens could win a majority in parliament with just 45 to 46 percent of the vote.
The SPD-Greens have risen to a combined 42 percent in recent polls, while Merkel's centre-right coalition has fallen to 38 percent.
"Those who are giving their own party a bad name in public are not helping to resolve the problem but rather making it worse," said Ernst, a westerner who has been sharply criticized in public by some eastern leaders of the party.
Lafontaine, 68, had offered to take control again after resigning for health reasons in 2010, but only if nobody ran against him.
Lafontaine, a former German finance minister and leader of the SPD who quit that party in 2005, helped turn the Left into a national political force following the merger of the eastern PDS and western WASG parties in 2007.
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by David Cowell and Peter Cooney)