West Berlin election outcome shakes 'house of Helmut'

The conservatives are smiling, the house squatters are dancing, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is worrying after what is widely billed here as the most important election in Berlin since 1946.

The election has raised altogether new issues of a minority city government, a hint of possible national government change through coalition shifts, and polarization between West Berlin's youth and counterculture and the conservative establishment.

In the May 10 election the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 65 seats and 47.9 percent of the votes to take City Hall away from the Social Democrats (SPD) for the first time in three decades. The Social Democrats, hurt by a financial scandal that triggered early elections, dropped to 52 seats and 38.4 percent of the votes.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP, or Liberals) stayed above the 5 percent minimum to keep seven seats.

The fledgling Alternative List (AL), the pro-squatter, environmentalist, protest party that represents West Berlin's thriving counterculture, took nine seats with 7.2 percent of the votes.

The clearest winner in all this is the West Berlin mayor-elect, Richard von Weizsacker, a highly respected senior CDU politician who came to West Berlin two years ago to run unsuccessfully for mayor in the last election. Von Weizsacker, a moderate, is best known for leading the hard-liners within his party to accept finally, the Social Democrats' detente policy with East Germany -- begun a decade ago by former West Berlin mayor and then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

The Liberals must now choose between joining the CDU in a coalition or playing an opposition role. Both options are unpalatable. In the former case the FDP would drop its long partnership with the Social Democrats and violate a specific campaign promise not to do so. In the latter case the FDP would be accused the irresponsibility in letting West Berlin become "ungovernable," with a minority government. (The CDU is just two seats short of a majority.)

The decision will be made by the West Berlin Liberals for reasons of city politics. But the ramifications could be nationwide. Historically, West Germany's legislative majorities have changed only with a change in coalition preference of the swing-vote FDP --and any national FDP shift so far has been scouted first by a shift of a regional FDP.

After last October's general election the national FDP made it clear that it expects to maintain its decade-long coalition with Chancellor Schmidt's Social Democrats for the next four years. Most close political observers expect this coalition to continue, barring major turmoil within the SDP. The CDU, however -- following the defeat of its right-wing candidate, Franz Josef Strauss, last October -- has made itself conspicuously available for any future coalition with the FDP.

And Schmidt's political troubles -- compounded by the West Berlin humiliation -- are mounting; junior SPD rebels are opposing Schmidt's leadership on a subject dear to the Liberals: NATO nuclear weapons.

It is not yet clear how far the nine AL city councillors will channel the various protests of their constituency into the formal political process and how far they will use their new inside political information (as promised in their campaign) to guide street demonstrations and other "apolitical opposition." Some of the AL councillors, like Otto Schily -- who made his name as a lawyer for Baader-Meinhof terrorists -- are committed leftists. Others are nonideological ecologists.

In any case, the AL turnout showed that a substantial block of voters are fed up with the closed-shop politics of the three established parties. And it is precisely these voters who are most suspicious of the con servatives and therefore of the new city government.

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