Disillusioned voters are pinning hopes on new socialist party Fifteen years after reunification, Germany has been plunged into a bitter election campaign exposing simmering resentments and a widening rift between the two halves of the country. Next month's general election is likely to make Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany's conservative opposition, the first chancellor from the formerly communist eastern part of the country. However, relations between eastern and western Germans have rarely been more acrimonious. Following Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's decision to bring forward the September 18 poll by a year in an attempt to unite Germans behind his unpopular economic reforms, both he and Dr Merkel have been forced to watch a newly formed socialist group known as the Left Party become the strongest political force in the east. Drawing on members from the successor party to the east German communist party and western trade unionists angry over welfare cuts sanctioned by Mr Schroeder's Social Democrats, the Left Party's populist rhetoric has struck a cord in an area hit particularly hard by Germany's soaring unemployment and sluggish growth. 'A lot of people in the east are very disappointed by how things have developed,' said Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University, referring to the economic hardships faced by many in the region. 'They think the Left Party will best represent their interests.' Despite growing up in the former East Germany, Dr Merkel has been unable to make use of her background to connect with eastern voters. Instead, many Ossis - as they're often disparagingly known - feel she has denied her roots to have a successful western-style political career with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). 'I just don't think she'll do that much for the east,' said 27-year-old Katja Stepniewski from Fuerstenwalde, a town halfway between Berlin and the Polish border. Dr Merkel's campaign has not been helped by the antics of several conservative politicians, who have insulted easterners and criticised their potential influence on the election's outcome. Joerg Schoenbohm, the CDU interior minister of the eastern state of Brandenburg, first caused outrage in early August by blaming a multiple infanticide by an unstable woman on the legacy of the former East Germany's brutal regime. He promptly apologised for his gaffe. Only a week later, the conservative premier of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, gave Dr Merkel much more to worry about. Mr Stoiber railed against the east at several campaign rallies in Bavaria. 'I can't accept that the east will determine who becomes chancellor,' he said. Besides lamenting that other Germans lacked the intelligence of his fellow Bavarians, he also called easterners 'dumb calves' who were 'picking their own butcher' by supporting the Left Party. Trailing badly in opinion polls, Mr Schroeder has assailed the conservatives for unnecessarily dividing easterners and westerners. 'The bullying and tastelessness of Mr Stoiber, and the leadership shortcomings of Dr Merkel, are not what's needed,' he said last week.