Ex-Communists' Fortunes May Be on Rise in Berlin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a 12-year make-over, the former East German Communist Party may have a chance to return to power in this reunited capital after the collapse of the mainstream political coalition that has ruled the city-state into financial ruin.

Yet another campaign contribution scandal in the conservative Christian Democratic Union cost Mayor Eberhard Diepgen his job this week and turned the Social Democrats' search for new partners in a direction many have long resisted--the Party of Democratic Socialism.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the PDS evolved from the authoritarian ranks that built the Berlin Wall and imprisoned 16 million Germans in a giant state penitentiary until the eastern inmates revolted in 1989 and threw out the Red tormentors.

But the reformed successors of the hated Communist regime still possess the power to connect with voters from the six eastern states who shared their fates, both as totalitarian victims in the era of division and as western Germans' resented poor relations since reunification.

If new elections for the Berlin city-state government are called next week, as expected, the Social Democrats may well align with the eastern leftists and push the conservatives out of the capital's limelight for the crucial year leading up to the next federal elections in autumn 2002.

Only subtle hints have so far emerged to suggest that the Social Democrats, headed nationally by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, are thinking about teaming up with the PDS.

"The era of the grand coalition is over. It's time for something new," a cryptic Franz Muentefering, the Social Democrats' general secretary, told German Radio on Friday.

In another interview seen as a harbinger of realigning political forces, the PDS' most popular politician and the architect of its ideological overhaul, Gregor Gysi, told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper that the country needs his party to strengthen integration.

"Involving the PDS is the only way to turn Berlin into a genuine project involving both east and west," Gysi insisted.

The ousted conservatives and their media sympathizers, meanwhile, have been screaming foul and warning of moral as well as economic losses should the ex-Communists be brought back into power. Christian Democratic Secretary-General Laurenz Meyer accused Schroeder's party of letting "the lust for power throw aside principle," and the mass-circulation Bild newspaper called the government crisis a leftist "putsch."

Diepgen was in effect ousted late Thursday when the Social Democrats announced that they were withdrawing from the coalition that has governed here since 1990. That will compel the city legislature to call a vote of confidence June 16, and the crippled government is virtually assured of losing.

New elections for Berlin are expected in September. The Social Democrats will probably pick up votes, while the Christian Democrats have weakened since the last city election in 1999. The conservatives have been hurt by a stunning succession of campaign finance scandals and sleaze allegations involving former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and, most recently, Diepgen's deputy, Klaus Landowsky, who is accused of arranging ill-considered loans to big contributors to the party.

The Social Democrats are expected to be in the driver's seat in building the next Berlin leadership, even if they decide against joining sides with the PDS. Depending on the election outcome, the environmentalist Greens and the Liberal Democrats could also pool their votes with the Social Democrats in a three-way coalition.

A Social Democratic partnership with the PDS could be a dangerous experiment for Schroeder, considering the lingering resentment against the eastern party's predecessors, who divided the country and enslaved their own people.

The new team, whatever its composition, would also have to prove itself better managers than the old coalition, and the generous welfare systems backed by Schroeder's party and the PDS seem hardly the formula for erasing Berlin's red ink. The city-state is virtually bankrupt because of bad loans made by Bankgesellschaft Berlin, in which the municipal government holds a majority stake, to property developers who have since gone under.

On the other hand, any semblance of an effective partnership between the reinvented eastern leftists and the predominantly western Social Democrats could provide a model for shoring up east-west cooperation across the 16-state federation.

The PDS already plays a nominal and junior role in governing two other eastern states, but a share of power in the capital would bestow new legitimacy on the party and show eastern Germans that they have an increasingly powerful voice in government affairs.

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