German Social Democrats Gamble on Risky Coalition

Needing a boost before nationwide elections, SPD joins with former Communists in Saxony-Anhalt

LISTENING to the rhetoric of German politicians these days, it is as if the cold war never ended.

Leaders of the major German parties are once again sniping at each other over the question of how to treat Communists, or more specifically in this case former Communists.

The row is the immediate result of a high-risk political gamble taken by Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats. The SPD's popularity has been stagnating, and party leaders - needing to regain momentum before national elections in October - are trying new ideas to attract voters.

The political experiment is taking place in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the five states that used to comprise East Germany, where the Social Democrats have joined with the eco-leftist Alliance `90-Green Party to form a government, although together they don't control a majority in the state legislature.

That means the minority coalition must depend on the support of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former East German Communist Party, if it is to be viable.

The SPD's action likely won't sit well with a large segment of the German electorate, conservative by nature and wary of anything connected to Communism. The question is: Can the move rally more undecided voters to the SPD than it alienates?

The SPD needs to convince voters that it possesses the determination to win in October by governing in Saxony-Anhalt without the help of the Christian Democrats. The operating belief is that a large segment of voters are reluctant to cast ballots for the SPD in national elections because they are not convinced the party is prepared to wield power.

In Bonn, leaders of the conservative Christian Democrat-led government sense that instead of igniting a political comeback, the SPD is damaging its October election hopes. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) charges the SPD with tacitly cooperating with the former Communists in Saxony-Anhalt, labeling such action political treachery.

With an eye toward the elections, the governing coalition is promoting the scare-tactic of ``Reds on the Rhine'' - ready to undermine the federal government in Bonn, achieving through chicanery today what they could not accomplish with intimidation during the cold war.

``The SPD is turning itself into a Trojan Horse for the PDS [Democratic Socialists],'' CDU General Secretary Peter Hintze told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. Social Democrat leader Rudolf Scharping shrilly defends the SPD's action, blasting the governing coalition's criticism as a smoke screen.

In an interview with the German news agency DPA, Mr. Scharping said the Democratic Socialists ``were not a constitutional party,'' and denied the SPD would cooperate with the former Communists. ``There is a crystal-clear line of division,'' he insisted.

On becoming leader last year, Scharping tried to reshape the traditionally left-leaning SPD into a party more attractive to centrist voters. His efforts, however, did not yield great success.

The storm over the Saxony-Anhalt coalition developed following inconclusive state elections in late June, in which the Christian Democrats gained 34.4 percent of the vote; the SPD came in second with 34 percent; the PDS captured a surprising 20 percent; and the Greens gained 5.1 percent. The liberal Free Democrats, a coalition partner of the Christian Democrats in the federal government, failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle required for representation in the legislature.

The results initially appeared to favor the formation of a ``grand coalition'' between the Christian Democrats and the SPD.

But the SPD national leadership pressed its local leader, Reinhard Hoeppner, to pursue the minority government option instead. Many in the national SPD leadership, though not especially Scharping, view an alliance with the Greens as the only realistic hope the SPD has for gaining power in October.

Together, the SPD-Greens will control only 40 of the 97 seats in the Saxony-Anhalt legislature. But Ruediger Fikentscher, the leader of the SPD's Saxony-Anhalt legislative faction, said the minority government will succeed.

``Such a government will be able to act,'' Mr. Fikentscher said in a telephone interview. ``It may even be better prepared to take decisions than, for example, a grand coalition because it will be more harmonious.''

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