Question: When is a coalition not a coalition? Answer: When it's "toleration" or "passive support." This at least is the fine semantic distinction drawn by four members of the West Berlin Free Democratic Party (FDC or Liberals) in deciding June 2 that they will vote for conservative Christian Democrat Richard Von Weizsacker as mayor.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won a plurality in the May election -- defeating the Social Democrats (SPD) in West Berlin for the first time in three decades -- but was two votes short of a majority in the city council. The seven-seat FDP, which has been a longstanding coalition partner of the SPD, has now made a conservative majority possible by donating four votes to Von Weizsacker.
The Liberals' decision is being watched closely because of its political ramifications for the federal West German government in Bonn an 11-year-old Social Democratic-Liberal coalition gives SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt his post. And any Liberal defection back to its pre-1969 conservative coalition would give national leadership to the conservatives.
The leader of the national FDP, Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has pledged his party to continue its coalition with the Social Democrats at least until the 1984 general election. But he also counseled the West Berlin FDP to act "responsibly" to prevent a stalemate and to give the new conservative mayor a sufficiently reliable majority to enable him to govern. (Otherwise, the fear is that the nine-seat Alternative List of counterculture environmentalist could disrupt city government.)
The grudging acceptance of Genscher's counsel by half of the West Berlin FDP caucus chips away one more piece of support from the federal Social Democratic-Liberal coalition. The only remaining regional government with an SPD-FDP coalition is in the state of Hessen, and the Hessen Social Democratic premier is now calling for a vote of confidence that could split the SPD left wing and the FDP.
Observes expect that these local politics will not determine the future of the federal coalition, however. They believe the real test will come in the federal policies of supporting NATO nuclear modernization -- and even more in agreeing on a 1982 budget.
Until the Past few days the standard analysis of defense politics was that Schmidt might not manage to get his SPD to support the NATO nuclear modernization at its convention next spring -- and that in case the FDP would break up the coalition and Schmidt would resign.
Now, however, it seems that Genscher has exactly the same problem with younger Liberals inside the FDP that Schmidt has with younger Social Democrats in the SPD; a surprisingly high 25 percent of FDP delegates voted against the new NATO weapons at the FDP convention at the end of May.
If Schmidt is able to keep the SPD with him on NATO rearmament, the more crucial issue for the federal coalition may prove to be the 1982 budget. In a period of recession and strained budgets some cuts have to be made. Here, too, both parties run the gamut of opinions, but the FDP mainstream inclines more toward reducing social welfare, while the SPD left wing adamantly opposes this.
The crucial time for this conflict will be next fall, when the 1982 budget has to be hamm ered out.