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Another Wall Falls in Berlin

Germany: An east-west local alliance of reformed Communists and the nation's ruling party could unite the capital, most residents hope.

January 17, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — A coalition uniting leftist parties of Germany's east and west takes power in this bankrupt capital today, forging an experimental partnership that some see as the crowning glory of reunification and others as a political sellout that could cost Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder his job in elections this fall.

The alliance of reformed Communists and Schroeder's Social Democrats after months of negotiation has inspired hope and celebration among most Berliners, symbolizing a genuine growing together of the two sides of a city that the Cold War divided and claimed as its front line.

But the coalition agreement signed Wednesday also led several prominent Social Democrats to resign from Schroeder's party in protest of a pact that they think unites them with former oppressors who built the Berlin Wall and shot those trying to escape.

The nine-member government to be sworn in today replaces a transitional leadership put in place seven months ago after Berlin's strangling financial crisis brought down a "grand coalition" led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

The capital, which has the status of one of Germany's 16 federal states, is mired in debts of $36 billion and has had to mortgage museums and monuments to the federal government because it can't afford to maintain them. The German government moved to Berlin from Bonn in 1999.

By uniting Schroeder's party and the former Communists, now known as the Party of Democratic Socialism, the coalition agreement will test whether the leftist politicians from across the former divide can cooperate and compromise for the collective good of Berlin's 3.5 million residents.

"Both parties can now make the unity of our city into something it has not yet experienced. Citizens of east and west can now feel themselves equally represented," said Stefan Liebich, the Berlin leader of the PDS. "This is a great day for Berlin."

Berlin's mayor, Social Democrat Klaus Wowereit, who is Germany's first openly gay state leader, initially tried to negotiate a three-party coalition with the environmentalist Greens--with whom Schroeder's party governs at the national level--and the pro-business Liberal Democrats.

But that proposed concoction proved too politically unwieldy, forcing the Social Democrats to reconsider partnership with the former Communists despite the fact that a sizable share of the membership of Schroeder's party was staunchly opposed to collaborating with descendants of the architects of division.

Twelve members of the Berlin chapter of the Social Democrats resigned after the 120-page coalition deal was signed, including two prominent figures in the Cold War-era resistance to the Communist forces that then surrounded and isolated West Berlin.

The Social Democrats won 30% of the October Berlin vote, called after the last government was felled in June by the finance scandal. The PDS earned 23%, just shy of the 24% garnered by the Christian Democrats, who were long the most powerful party in Berlin and are held responsible for the reckless spending that plunged the capital into debt.

Schroeder has called the PDS partnership here a result of unique circumstances, rather than a test of the parties' ability to work together that could be repeated at the national level. Federal elections are set for Sept. 22, and Schroeder faces a tough challenge from the conservatives, who have been casting the Berlin coalition deal as a moral capitulation.

The PDS still harbors some throwbacks, but its most influential members reflect the transformation of the party since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Gregor Gysi, a charismatic lawyer who is the most popular figure in the PDS, has taken on the all-important role of Berlin economics chief--a post that will force the welfare-oriented party to make painful cuts in social security if the capital is to escape its financial crisis.

Even if the Berlin experiment with east-west rapprochement is a one-time political gamble, it will probably become a yardstick for measuring the Social Democrats' success in overcoming economic woes that could influence the federal elections.

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