In Berlin, sturm und drang over former Communists

Forty years after the Berlin Wall, the renamed, retooled Communists could join a new city government.

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In this city burdened by its role in Europe's tumultuous 20th century, past associations inevitably figure into present-day decisions.

Once the center of Hitler's Nazi empire, it later became the symbol of Cold War division, split between East and West. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the controversial decision to move the capital back two years later, many Germans looked with hope to the reunited city.

But the legacy of the cold-war barrier plays a central role in a debate that has erupted over the city's future, as the successor to the East German Communist party gains political ground, with a chance at joining a new city government.

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Observers say the city's early elections in the fall are a crucial test - of the party's political maturity and ability to win the support of western Germans - that will affect the entire country.

Earlier this month, Berlin's long-standing coalition government, on the brink of bankruptcy, collapsed when the Social Democrats abandoned a decade-long partnership with conservative Christian Democrats in a vote of no-confidence.

The necessary majority was reached with the votes of the successor to the Communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). One top Christian Democrat called it "the darkest day for Berlin since the construction of the Wall in 1961."

Conservatives charged that by cooperating with the PDS in a city that Communists had divided with a wall, the Social Democrats were breaking a taboo and creating a serious threat to the balance of the existing political order. What enraged Christian Democrats even more, was that the Social Democrats - who under Chancellor Gerhard Schroder head the federal government - didn't rule out sharing power with the PDS in a future city government.

To most western Germans, the PDS is a suspect grouping of incorrigible Communists who continue to dream of socialist utopias while remaining ambivalent about the party's totalitarian legacy. The tabloid newspaper Bild, traditionally a staunch enemy of communism, recently warned its readers: "Berliners, be vigilant!"

But to many eastern Germans, it is the only political force that represents their interests - and lost identity.

If the ex-Communists were to join a governing coalition in Berlin, "that would be the breakthrough for the East and for the PDS," says Andre Brie, a former campaign manager for the party. "I'm convinced that on a federal level it would clear the way for a center-left government with participation of the PDS" after next year's federal elections.

Meanwhile, Christian Democrats, with their party struggling to remain politically relevant, warn that a leftward swing on a national level could jeopardize future foreign investment in Germany, a serious concern.

Already, the country is facing inflation rates that hit an eight-year high last month, and some economists forecast that this year's growth rate could dip as low as 1.2 percent, making the German economy one of the most sluggish in Europe.

In many ways, the toppled Berlin government was itself a remnant of the city's division. Accustomed to fat federal subsidies for West Berlin and a good-old-boy network that formed in the shadow of the wall, city politicians have spent the past decade driving Berlin deeper into debt.

Under the strain of a campaign-finance scandal and the catastrophic mismanagement of a bank partially owned by the city, the coalition government finally cracked this month, giving the former Communists their opening.

In the past, the PDS has alternately been ignored or demonized by more mainstream parties. It is still struggling to prove it has come to terms with its own past as direct descendant of the East German regime that brutally quashed dissent, built the Berlin Wall, and ordered border troops to fire on anybody attempting to cross it.

According to Mr. Brie, "The PDS didn't just rename itself. It underwent a very deep transformation with big [internal] disputes."

While the PDS leadership has begun scrubbing its image by officially denouncing the wall as "unjust," some party hardliners defended its construction as a "peacekeeping measure."

One leading party functionary said the nationalization of companies like auto giants BMW or Daimler was a long-term PDS goal.

Statements like these damage the former Communists' efforts to extend their party base from eastern to western Germany, where they are virtually nonexistent.

Although the PDS won 40 percent of the vote in the eastern half in city elections two years ago, it garnered only 4.5 percent in the west.

"For the older generation, the wall is still very much alive. You can't avoid these feelings," says Wolfgang Kusior, a political scientist who runs a publicly funded foundation dedicated to research on the Communist dictatorship.

"But," Mr. Kusior adds, "I think Berliners are smart enough not to let themselves be instrumentalized."

Despite low polling figures in the past, Brie, of the PDS, says voters in the western half of Berlin are are increasingly accepting of eastern politicians.

A case in point is Gregor Gysi, a candidate for mayor in fall elections.

While he isn't expected to win (this time), the witty, charismatic politician - who made a name for himself nationally in the German parliament and on countless talk shows - is popular among west Berlin voters.

The Social Democrat in charge of the caretaker government, as well as the Christian Democrat mayoral candidate, are barely known beyond the city limits.

That's one reason why Helmut Kohl - who vanished from the political arena following a campaign-finance scandal more than a year ago - has announced his intention to go "into battle" on behalf of the Christian Democrats in the fall elections.

It was Mr. Kohl who as chancellor advocated moving the capital from Bonn to Berlin despite fierce opposition from many western German politicians.

He pushed the measure through parliament exactly 10 years ago - ironically, thanks to the votes of PDS representatives.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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