AFTER a relatively quiet Christmas in East Germany, it's rough and tumble in politics again. Both the opposition and the Communists see May elections racing toward them. They are losing no time preparing.
Last week, six groups in the opposition decided their only hope in beating the Communists would be to form a coalition, draft a common program, and field common candidates.
The Communists, meanwhile, are trying to gain ground by latching onto two issues - arms control and fighting neo-Nazism.
According to press reports, the Communist Party proposes that both Germanys cut their armies in half this year, seek the withdrawal of United States and Soviet troops by 1999, and eliminate their chemical weapons. (In West Germany, the Christian Democrats - Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party - called for a new European security force independent of Moscow and Washington).
The other issue, whipped up by the Communists earlier in the week, is a campaign against neo-Nazism and neofascism. The way in which the Communists handled this issue, however, has enraged opposition leaders to such an extent that they're threatening to quit the round table, which meets again today.
The news media in East Germany, controlled by the Communists, have recently been full of reports of desecrated Soviet memorials and a rise in neo-Nazism. The Communists claim that radical nationalists in West Germany are exporting this brand of politics to East Germany. The Communists are presenting themselves as the party best able to fight this threat - but say they need internal and external intelligence forces to do it.
It's these forces that have the opposition so upset. Before Christmas, the government, at the urging of eight opposition groups at the round table, agreed to dissolve the hated secret police as well as the extensive foreign spy network. But at the round-table meeting last Wednesday, the opposition said it had learned that the government was reconstructing the forces just dissolved.
The opposition insists that intelligence agencies should not be established until after elections. It also says the Communists are exaggerating the right-wing threat. If Prime Minister Hans Modrow does not provide a report on the issue by today, the opposition representatives at the table say they will quit the weekly talks. Over the weekend, the government announced it will immediately disarm the secret police.
Some analysts say the controversy shows that hard-liners are still influential in the ``renewed'' Communist Party. Prominent reform-minded Communists like Mr. Modrow and Wolfgang Berghofer ``are not the only people around,'' says Daniel Hamilton, an analyst with the Aspin Institute in West Berlin. The party is still fighting to maintain power, he says.
One way in which they have been able to do this so far has been through their extensive phone, office, staff, and media network - none of which the opposition has. After Bonn loudly complained on Friday that this advantage will mean unfair elections in May, the Communists said they would provide the opposition with offices, typewriters, copying machines, and media access.
The opposition, however, also faces the challenge that it is splintered and leaderless.
``As single parties, the opposition has no chance,'' says Wilhelm Bruns, an expert on East Germany at the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Bonn. But he says he wonders how workable the new coalition will be. One coalition member has already pulled out.
Mr. Hamilton says the biggest obstacle to a successful coalition will be ``personalities.'' A Western diplomat in East Berlin agrees. In his view, ``egos'' are strong in the opposition, and this is one reason why there are so many different groups that sound so similar.