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Germany: Ex-Communists Join Provincial Government

Munich, 2 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the successors to the East German communists have won their way into a government in eastern Germany.

Agreements approved over the weekend made it possible for the party now known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) to join the Social Democrats as a governing party in the province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which is on the Baltic Sea. The coalition agreement signed today gives the PDS three ministers in the new provincial government.

It is the first time that the PDS has become part of a government at any level in Germany. The party does support the SPD's minority government in the former east German province of Saxony-Anhalt, but from outside, because it is not a formal coalition and the PDS does not participate in the government in any way.

The PDS's national leader, Gregor Gysi, told German radio this morning that the outcome was a "historic breakthrough" for his once-scorned party. Gysi, who made little attempt to disguise his euphoria, predicted that the PDS could also make its way into the provincial governments of two other east German states, Saxony and Thuringen, when elections are held there next year. He said that he expects to join coalitions with the Social Democrats in both states.

Gysi saw the PDS entry into provincial government as a "natural parallel" to the party's success in the recent federal elections, when it increased its representation in the Bundestag. He said he believed the time would come when the PDS would be part of a federal government.

The coalition agreement in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern follows provincial elections in September. The Social Democrats gained the most votes -- around 34 percent -- but did not win enough to govern alone. The PDS won around 25 percent, which gives the new coalition a comfortable majority. The other possible coalition partner was the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which came in second in the election with 30 percent. The SPD conducted coalition negotiations with the CDU but decided their differences were too great.

Predictably, the SPD-PDS coalition was criticized today by the CDU, which is now an opposition party in the province. The leader of the Christian Democrats in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Angela Merkel, described it as "a black day for Germany." Other party officials described the coalition as a "tragic first" for a democratic Germany.

The decision to form a coalition between the SPD and the PDS has also been sharply criticized by some prominent Social Democrats. The weekly news magazine "Der Spiegel" today published a warning from four senior SPD members that suggested a too close relation with the ex-communists could drive voters away from the Social Democrats and lead them to vote for the PDS. The four argued that Mecklenburg-Vorpommern should not become a model for SPD governments in other east German provinces.

But the Social Democratic premier of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Harald Ringstorff, told a radio interviewer today that there are good, pragmatic reasons for bringing the former communists directly into the government instead of them supporting it from outside, as in Saxony-Anhalt. He said his solution forced the ex-communist PDS to take equal responsibility for government decisions, explaining, "They have to face the facts of a given situation, such as insufficient funds, instead of taking an idealistic position and demanding measures which cannot be taken."

Ringstorff said that relying on support from the PDS outside the government would mean that "the PDS was there for the sunshine while (his party took) responsibility for the rain showers." But Ringstorff offered other reasons for favoring a coalition with the PDS instead of the Christian Democrats. He told reporters that his government "can implement many more social-democratic policies with the PDS than...with the Christian Democrats.

The main problem in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is unemployment, as is true in all the five former communist provinces. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has the second highest unemployment rate in the country --17.5 percent -- compared to a national average of around 10 percent. The new coalition government is pledged to take every possible opportunity to attract new industry to the Baltic province and to rehabilitate its present ailing businesses.

Another item in today's political news indicates that leading CDU members are prepared to take previously unthinkable steps to get into government. Wolfgang Schauble, the designated successor to Helmut Kohl as national leader of the Christian Democrats, said his party would be prepared to go into coalition with the environmentalist Green party, if that was necessary to enter the government. Schauble indicated that his first target in the elections next year is the province of Saarland, on the French border.

At the national level, the Greens have just entered the government as the minority partner in the SPD-led coalition.