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East Germany's Communist Party apologized Saturday for leading the country into crisis and overwhelmingly elected as its new chief Gregor Gysi, a 41-year-old reformer known for defending the rights of the opposition.

Gysi promised that the Communists are willing to enter into a government coalition with other parties after free elections proposed for May.He also said the party is abandoning its claim to absolute rule and held up a huge janitor's broom, symbolizing his determination to make a clean sweep and start anew.

Gysi, a bespectacled, blunt-talking intellectual, is the youngest Communist Party chief in Eastern Europe. He was chosen during a 17-hour emergency party congress that started Friday night.

After the election, reformist Premier Hans Modrow set up a commission to study an overhaul of the nation's increasingly troubled economy, plagued by slow growth, consumer product shortages and a foreign debt of $20.6 billion.

Gysi called the party's problems "insanely complicated," despite promises of new ideas, new personnel and more democratic ideas.

The party chairman also cautioned the more than 2,700 delegates at the party congress that there "aren't any miracles."

Miracles may be needed for the Communists, who were holding what almost certainly will be their last session as the country's ruling force.

Party officials disclosed Tuesday that 500,000 members had quit since September, more than twice the previously published figure.

That brings the membership to fewer than 1.8 million, seriously weakening the force that held an iron-fisted sway over East Germany for four decades.

With seven former Politburo members in jail and some ousted leaders charged with corruption, the Communists squarely faced up to the abuses of the past.

The delegates decided to change the party's name later this week but voted against disbanding altogether. They also voted to streamline the leadership.

Gysi, one of East Berlin's most prominent lawyers, infuriated hard-line rulers