Former Communists Boosted by Ballots In Eastern Germany

THE Bonn political establishment has tried to demonize the former East German Communists in an effort to reduce their popularity.

But the anticommunist attacks seem to have had the opposite effect. And now the establishment might have to make some kind of Faustian deal to form a government following Oct. 16 federal elections.

Sunday elections in the eastern German states of Brandenburg and Saxony confirmed the former Communist Party's position as a regional political force. The totals also suggest that the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), as the former Communists now bill themselves, could emerge as a pivotal power broker.

Voters returned incumbent governments to power. In Brandenburg, state Prime Minister Manfred Stolpe and his Social Democratic Party captured 54 percent, while state Prime Minister Kurt Biedenkopf of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 57 percent in Saxony.

But the PDS's success attracted the most attention. The former Communists gained 18.7 percent of the vote in Brandenburg, up from 13.4 percent in 1990. In Saxony, the PDS garnered 16.5 percent, up from 10.2 percent in 1990.

Also, the centrist Free Democratic Party, a coalition partner in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat-led government in Bonn, didn't even come close to winning the 5 percent necessary to hold seats in either state legislature.

The PDS's rise in the east raises the likelihood that the party will win enough votes in October to enter the national Parliament. The Free Democrats, meanwhile, appear in danger of disappearing into political oblivion.

Those facts could turn the former Communists, instead of the Free Democrats, into the ``kingmaker'' party, providing the votes to form a parliamentary majority. If that scenario unfolds, it would certainly mean an end to Mr. Kohl's center-right coalition.

It could herald the formation of a ``grand coalition'' between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who form the largest opposition party. But such an arrangement could be volatile, as the election campaign had seen a high amount of vitriol exchanged between the two parties.

For the left-leaning Social Democrats, the former Communists' rise could create an agonizing dilemma: Should they try to form a minority government with the eco-leftist Greens that would be tolerated by the PDS or not? If yes, the attempt could result in political tumult, as many citizens are fiercely anticommunist.

The Bonn establishment - the CDU in particular - continues to portray the PDS as an antidemocratic monster.

PDS leaders counter that their party has reformed itself into a democratic organization fighting for social justice. They add that if the PDS is a Frankenstein, then Bonn created it.

``We are the only party that represents eastern interests, so why shouldn't we be in the Parliament?'' said PDS leader Gregor Gysi during a recent campaign appearance in Bonn.

How long the PDS phenomenon will last is hotly debated in Bonn. PDS critics say the party's membership is graying, meaning it is destined to fade. Others say the former Communists' appeal will decline as eastern German living standards improve.

But Mr. Gysi said that the slowness of Bonn politicians to adapt to the post-cold-war reality ensures that the PDS will have a significant power base in the future.

``I can speak from experience about how dangerous it can be not to adapt to changes,'' said Gysi, who was a high-ranking Communist Party official when East Germany collapsed in 1989.

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