In Berlin, sturm und drang over former Communists
Forty years after the Berlin Wall, the renamed, retooled Communists could join a new city government.
In this city burdened by its role in Europe's tumultuous 20th century, past associations inevitably figure into present-day decisions.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.