ALMOST all of the 5.2 million East Germans who visited the West last weekend went back home to their jobs Monday. But for East Germany's political leaders, this week has not been business as usual. Parliamentary debates rarely compare with the visual spectacles of millions of people crossing borders or of holes being cut in the Berlin Wall. But Monday's events in the People's Chamber were just as momentous.
The first noncommunist parliamentary president was chosen in the first-ever secret ballot in the East German parliament's history. The body also approved the nomination of Hans Modrow - widely considered to be the only Communist Party official to enjoy popular support - as the country's new prime minister.
Television viewers in East and West Germany watched live broadcasts of the session. Five candidates were on the first ballot, but no one received a majority. The runoff ballot was between two noncommunists. G"unther Maleuda, chairman of the small Democratic Farmers' Party of Germany, (DBD), won, becoming the first noncommunist head of the East German parliament.
Mr. Maleuda's party of 103,000 members is one of four noncommunist organizations, known as ``block parties,'' within the parliament. In the past, these parties have simply been rubber stamps for the communists. Recently some of the ``block parties'' have called for radical changes. The most vocal has been the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany.
Communist Party solidarity within the parliament itself may be breaking down. Maleuda, a probable compromise choice, received a mere 16-vote majority over the more radical Liberal Democratic Party candidate.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party Central Committee agreed to a request made late last week by party leader Egon Krenz, to upgrade a December party conference to a congress. This step will allow the maximum number of party officials to participate, and will also give the meeting power to remove the entire Central Committee.
With the dizzying pace of change in the last five weeks, what exactly have Mr. Krenz and the East German Communists won?
``They've bought themselves some time,'' says Daniel Hamilton, deputy director of the Aspen Institute in West Berlin, ``perhaps until the end of the year.''
``Until now, Krenz has only been able to react to events. With the lifting of travel restrictions last weekend and agreeing to free elections, public pressure for immediate change will lessen. He'll have time to put together a program,'' says Mr. Hamilton, who speaks regularly with East German Communist Party officials.
Next month should see the removal of Communist hard-liners at the party's congress. Economic changes could be announced. And, ``elections will probably be held in the next eight months,'' predicts Hamilton.
Also part of a new program will be a coalition government within parliament. After being approved as the country's new prime minister Monday, Mr. Modrow said that he would work to form such a government. But the coalition for now will only be with parties already sitting in the People's Chamber. The newly recognized opposition groups such as New Forum will not be represented.
Krenz and the Communists hope to isolate the new groups. ``Their tactic has been to channel political participation into the established political parties,'' says Hamilton.
For that tactic to work, the public's confidence in groups who have supported the Communists in the past will need to be bolstered considerably.
Large public demonstrations continued throughout East Germany Monday night. More than 200,000 protesters marched through Leipzig. The crowds held banners calling for Krenz's resignation, demanded that the wall between the two Germanies be torn down, and called for immediate free elections.
Referring to the spirited debates taking place in parliament, a speaker said skeptically, ``Now we're seeing fewer communists and more opportunists.''