East Germany's first democratic government teetered on the brink of collapse Tuesday, but the quicksilver pace of German unification showed no sign of slowing despite the bitter political infighting.
The quarrel over the precise timing of the historic merger reached a crisis point after the small Liberal Party faction walked out of Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere's grand coalition, and the country's second-largest party, the Social Democrats, threatened to follow suit.
At issue is whether East Germany should accede to West Germany on the eve of joint national elections scheduled for Dec. 2, or immediately afterward--a technicality that could determine the political tilt of a united German Parliament.
But even as the East Berlin coalition showed signs of unraveling barely 100 days into De Maiziere's office, discussions between the two Germanys over key points of their merger rolled along.
West German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters in Bonn that final negotiations on a treaty that would outline a single legal and political system for united Germany should be complete by the end of August.
Schaeuble said experts from both sides were making "good headway" in laying the ground for an Aug. 1 meeting of German unity committees from the East and West German parliaments.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an East German government spokesman said Tuesday night that there is no chance "at all" that the political storm in East Berlin might slow the reunification process, because all parties are committed to the goal.
The two German states have already merged their economic, social and monetary systems. After the second treaty uniting political and legal systems is ironed out, joint elections are all that is needed to seal the merger.
Choosing a capital remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the political-legal treaty, according to Schaeuble. East Germany has declared a preference for Berlin, but critics argue that the city's Third Reich World War II history plus the staggering cost of uprooting the West German federal government make staying in Bonn a more practical choice.
A weary-looking De Maiziere told reporters late Tuesday that the strife in East Berlin amounts to nothing more than "tactical election maneuvering" by his worried rivals. But he nonetheless scheduled emergency talks with vacationing West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for Thursday.
Both men are Christian Democrats, and Kohl is considered the front-runner to become the first leader of a united Germany after 45 years of bitter division.
Although the Liberal resignation still left De Maiziere with a clear governing majority in the 400-seat Volkskammer, loss of the Social Democrats' 88 seats would leave him two votes short of a mandate.
De Maiziere, a concert violist and human rights lawyer holding his first public office, could then either attempt to form a new government or try to govern with a minority.
The Liberals issued a statement in East Berlin sharply criticizing De Maiziere's "unyielding stand on the issue of accession and voting procedures."
The Liberals and Social Democrats want East Germany to legally dissolve itself and accede to West Germany on Dec. 1, one day before the federal elections. Such a move would mean adhering to West German electoral laws, which require a party to win at least 5% of the popular vote to claim seats in Parliament.
That 5% rule would effectively block smaller East German political parties, including those who mounted last fall's peaceful anti-Communist revolution, from winning seats in the all-German Parliament.
De Maiziere and some smaller East German parties insist that the Dec. 2 balloting be divided among East and West districts, which would permit East Germany's estimated 12 million voters to apply their own, more liberal election laws.
East Germany would then immediately accede to West Germany, effectively dodging the 5% rule in a move that De Maiziere acknowledges favors his own Christian Democrats.
He denied accusations by opponents that his stance was choreographed behind the scenes by Kohl's own Christian Democrats to ensure that Kohl would keep his lead in the election race.
"Any speculation that Bonn plays a special role is absolutely unacceptable," De Maiziere said Tuesday night in an interview on West German television.
The Christian Democrats won more than 40% of the popular vote last March 18, when 93% of eligible East Germans cast ballots in the country's first free, democratic election.
Now, the smaller parties lined up with De Maiziere on this complicated yet crucial issue ironically include the discredited Communists--an embarrassment De Maiziere has attempted to shrug off by asserting, "We didn't vote with them; they voted with us."
The Liberals pounced on the strange conservative-Communist alliance as "a startling pact" that "is unbearable for us."
But De Maiziere said Tuesday's bailout "just goes to show that you can't rely on Liberals. They collapse when faced with a problem such as this. Well, if it's too heavy for them, we'll just have to carry it alone.