BERLIN — Voters in the German capital gave hearty endorsement to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats in state elections Sunday, but a surprisingly strong showing by the former Communists appears likely to put pressure on the leading party to share power with them.
The Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS, successor to the East German Communists who divided this city with the Berlin Wall, remains popular with the nation's eastern voters for the party's focus on social security issues and its post-unification transformation into a champion of human rights.
But even 12 years after the notorious symbol of Cold War division was toppled by pro-democracy forces, western Germans remain strongly opposed to the notion of a governing partnership with the political descendants of those who built the wall and shot countrymen trying to breach it.
The Social Democrats, who won about 30% of the vote in this state of 3.5 million, also have the option of forming a three-party coalition with the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Liberal Democrats.
But as a PDS leader argued soon after the results were in, rejection of the ex-Communists, who won 23% of the vote, in favor of two parties that together polled less would constitute a missed opportunity to mend the psychological rift still dividing the German capital into east and west.
"That would hardly be a signal for reconciliation. Quite the contrary," warned Olaf Claus, head of the PDS chapter in Berlin, which is both a city and a state. He also noted that an alliance of the Social Democrats and the Greens with the Liberal Democrats would be politically unwieldy, as the latter have long been a partner with the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU.
The Christian Democrats garnered only 24% of the vote, compared with 40% two years ago.
Sunday's election came three years ahead of schedule--made necessary by the resignation of Mayor Eberhard Diepgen of the CDU amid a corruption scandal. Berlin is virtually bankrupt, with a $37-billion debt racked up over the last decade as politicians spent liberally to rebuild the east and backed suspect construction firms with loans from a state-owned bank.
Klaus Wowereit, the Social Democrat who was named acting mayor after Diepgen's June ouster, will take on the title permanently as the lead candidate from the party that gathered the largest share of the vote. The first openly gay state leader in Germany, Wowereit has swiftly gained popularity in this capital, which has transformed itself into a modern, liberal and culturally diverse metropolis in the years since the wall was brought down.
"We have the mandate. We need to see now with which party we can best achieve future-oriented policies," Wowereit told jubilant supporters after the polls closed.
The only potential alliance the Social Democrats have ruled out is continuing the "grand coalition" in Berlin with the CDU, which had been the strongest party in the state for more than a decade.
The Berlin finance scandal has added to the conservatives' woes, as the party has yet to recover from accusations that its longtime national leader, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was involved in influence-peddling and illegal campaign contributions. Kohl paid a fine of about $140,000 in lieu of facing formal charges for allegedly misusing his office during 16 years in power.
Schroeder's party had been expected to do well, as the chancellor has gained strong national support for his conduct since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, including his vow of "unlimited solidarity" with the American military responses. His Social Democrats gained about 8 percentage points on their showing during the last Berlin election.
However, it was the PDS that posted the most impressive results: It is the only party in government opposing a German military role in the anti-terrorism actions, and that stance had been expected to hurt the party.
"The results are a mandate for a red-red government," insisted PDS lead candidate Gregor Gysi, referring to the signature color used both by his party and the Social Democrats. "The results also show that our rejection of the airstrikes on Afghanistan obviously didn't damage us."
The Liberal Democrats and the Greens won about 10% and 9% respectively, which--under the formula that governs dividing the seats--could give the Social Democrats a majority in the 159-member state parliament in the event they decide that a partnership with the former Communists would be unacceptable to too many Berliners.
A poll taken during the vote by the research group Wahlen showed that only 33% of respondents supported a PDS role in the Berlin government and 49% deemed it a bad idea. In western Berlin precincts, 63% of those asked said they were opposed to PDS politicians in the state Senate, the governing Cabinet.
But Wowereit, and more important, national Social Democratic Party manager Franz Muentefering, said they have never ruled out an alliance with the PDS. And Gysi, a witty orator, prominent lawyer and architect of his party's watershed reform, enjoys some western German support and is seen as the most likely figure to be offered a key Senate post.
A successful alliance in Berlin of the Social Democrats and former Communists also could give Schroeder and his party a boost with eastern voters ahead of federal elections in 11 months.