East Germany's first freely elected government collapsed in a cross-fire of political accusations Sunday, throwing the process of German unification into disarray, yet possibly accelerating the rush toward unity.
In a move widely expected, the government's second-largest party, the Social Democrats, voted overwhelmingly to leave the coalition after Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere accepted the resignation of two Cabinet ministers last Wednesday and fired two others, including Social Democrat Finance Minister Walter Romberg.
De Maiziere, leader of the Christian Democrats, the coalition's largest party, claimed the ministers were incompetent; the Social Democrats accused him of engaging in election politics by appearing to place the blame for East Germany's precipitous economic slide on them.
"Because of the behavior of De Maiziere, the Social Democrats have decided to leave this broken coalition," the party's chairman, Wolfgang Thierse, told a news conference.
De Maiziere labeled the Social Democrats' withdrawal as "a flight from responsibility." He said he would continue to rule as leader of a minority government.
In practical terms, the pullout of the 88-member Social Democratic parliamentary deputies leaves De Maiziere's remaining coalition partners with only 192 members in the 400-seat Volkskammer.
It also raises serious questions about the future of a state treaty currently being negotiated between the two Germanys that would govern the terms of political unity, including such issues as financial assistance to the soon-to-be-created five new federal states that presently make up East Germany.
The treaty is one of the few important remaining pieces of legislation facing the De Maiziere government, which is likely to disappear when political unity occurs, most likely within the next eight weeks.
In an interview with East German state television late Sunday, Thierse said his party had yet to decide whether it would support the treaty.
However, even if the treaty fails to get the required two-thirds majority vote in the Volkskammer, unity would still occur, but under terms of a simpler "transitional law" that would be passed by the West German Parliament, the Bundestag, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has a comfortable majority.
With this method, however, the very process of political union would be completed with a dominant West German Parliament setting the terms of accession without direct East German participation--an image that would only reinforce the reality that the fusion of the two Germanys is occurring far more as a West German takeover of the East than as a unification of equal partners.
Diplomats and political analysts suggested that failure of the state treaty could backfire against the Social Democrats in all-German elections, officially set for Dec. 2.
In Bonn, Kohl's chancery minister, Rudolf Seiters, pushed this point in an interview.
"A treaty is in the interests of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)," he said. "If it doesn't go through, there will be no (East German) participation, and the Social Democrats must explain to the voters why."
The level of financial support for East Germany upon declaring its accession to West Germany is a major point of dispute, both between East German parties and between the East German Social Democrats and Kohl's ruling coalition in Bonn.
The Social Democrats have demanded sharp increases on current suggested West German proposals.
"We've got an interest in a unity treaty but not at any price," Thierse said when asked about his support.
The final round of treaty talks is scheduled to resume today in Bonn and De Maiziere said they would go ahead.
In what is also interpreted as pre-election jockeying, the Social Democrats--now in opposition in both Germanys--have resumed pressure to accelerate the timing of East Germany's formal accession to West Germany, with some speculating a formal legislative proposal for immediate unification could be tabled in the Volkskammer this week.
Previously, leading Social Democrats have pushed for accession on Sept. 12, the date when the two Germanys and the four victorious World War II powers are expected to meet in Moscow to conclude the final round of talks on the external arrangements for unification.
Kohl and De Maiziere want unity to occur on Oct. 14, the date on which East Germany's five new states conduct their first elections.
Early unity would allow the Social Democrats to focus on Kohl in the election run-up as the sole individual to blame for East Germany's economic difficulties and the rising costs of unification.
Aside from the treaty, the biggest potential casualty of the coalition's collapse is the image of democracy itself for a people tasting their first real freedom in nearly 60 years.
Already upset by the drastic economic slide resulting from the sudden exposure of East Germany's antiquated, over-manned industry and farming sectors to free market Western competition following last July's monetary union, the unseemly manner of the government's collapse is likely only to deepen the disillusionment among East Germans, at least in the short term.
A survey published by the Bonn-based Infas Institute found only 27% of East Germans believe their government is doing a good job dealing with the country's problems, less than half the 56% figure registered in May.
Political analysts familiar with the conditions here, however, noted that the coalition's performance over its 130-day life has been credible despite its difficulties and eventual collapse.
"They came in with very little time, no experience and staffs they can't trust and have faced enormous problems," noted one Western diplomat here. "The amazing thing is that this burden has been carried as well as it has."