Germany's governing Social Democrats won an important victory over the weekend by winning the local elections in the city-state of Berlin for the first time in more than 25 years. But the party is now faced with the politically delicate question of whether to form a so-called "safe" coalition with two parties from western Germany -- or take as its partner the PDS, the successor party to the former East German Communist Party.
Munich, 22 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend's poll in Berlin was won by the Social Democrats, followed by their former coalition partners, the Christian Democrats. But it was the former communists -- the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) -- that was in many ways the most successful.
Although it finished in third place overall, it won sufficient support to be able to make a plausible demand for a role in the city government. It is the first time the PDS has been able to do that in the western part of Germany, although it has won a place in several provincial coalition governments in the former communist East Germany.
The PDS triumph came in the eastern part of Berlin, which was formerly under communist rule. There it won around 48 percent of the total vote. In western Berlin it won around 7 percent -- the best result it has ever seen in that area. All the parties from western Germany did badly in East Berlin and collected the vast majority of their votes in the western half of the city.
The overall support for PDS was so strong that it nearly secured a second-place finish. The once-powerful Christian Democrats finished only about one percent ahead of PDS -- a disastrous result for the party, which lost about 40 seats. The party suffered for its role in a series of financial scandals in Berlin that have left the city more than $35 billion in debt.
The eloquent, ebullient PDS leader, Gregor Gysi, told a triumphant meeting at party headquarters in Berlin today that his party had to be included in the future city government if the administration was to represent all Berliners and not only those in the western part of the city.
"We have a clear mandate to participate in government," Gysi told his cheering followers. He argued that giving the PDS a role in government would bridge the huge divide between the east of the city and the more prosperous West Berlin. Many East Berliners feel they are second-class citizens in the new Germany -- a feeling symbolized by the fact that they are paid less than their western counterparts.
PDS leader Gysi said of his party, "We are ready to accept government responsibility and to work actively and constructively for the internal unity [of Berlin] and for resolving the problems of the city."
But whether the PDS will enter the Berlin city government depends on the Social Democrats' local leadership in Berlin, as well as on its national leadership, which must consider carefully what impact a coalition that includes the PDS would have on overall voter support.
The PDS is still viewed with caution in most of western Germany where many suspect the party still harbors communist leanings. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is likely to take such sentiment into consideration as he and his party prepare for national elections next year.
Schroeder has expressed anger at the PDS and Gysi because of their opposition to the current U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan. Schroeder has promised Washington "unlimited solidarity" in the war against terrorism. He is so suspicious of the PDS that he will not even brief party members on the progress of the war because he fears information leaks.
The head of the Social Democrats in Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, was cautious today about commenting on what course his party would take in building a government coalition. With regard to the PDS, he said only that he had not excluded a coalition with the party before the election and would not exclude it now. But he added that in view of the city's financial crisis, he wanted a strong coalition and not a shaky one.
"I need a stable government for the next five years to solve the problems in Berlin. They are enormous, and to resolve them one needs a coalition which is in a position to work together for five years."
Wowereit noted the federal government's concerns about PDS opposition to the war in Afghanistan. But he said the election results indicated that the antiwar stance had not hurt, but rather helped, the PDS in its election bid -- particularly in East Berlin.
Most German commentators saw his remarks as a sign that the PDS may be included in any coalition. Near-final results give the Social Democrats 44 seats and the PDS 33. If the Greens party and its 14 seats were also included, the government would have a total of 91 seats and a comfortable majority in the 130-seat parliament.
An alternative coalition excluding the PDS could comprise the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the 15 seats of the Free Democrats. That coalition would have 73 seats -- also a parliamentary majority, but not as comfortable a one as the PDS option.
Many experts believe a final coalition will not emerge until next week at the earliest.
German commentators also see the outcome of the Berlin election as a warning signal to the national leader of the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel. The Christian Democrats must decide soon on their candidate for chancellor in next year's national election. Normally that distinction would fall to the party leader. But many are disappointed with what they consider lackluster leadership by Merkel and say the party's Berlin debacle could put even more pressure on her to withdraw as a possible candidate for chancellor.
Many in the party are instead looking to Edmund Stoiber, the head of the Bavarian province. Stoiber has made it clear that he is interested but has to yet to declare his candidacy.