New Berlin Mayor tries to shun old communists

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The Independent Online

The newly elected Mayor of Berlin announced that he would try to form an administration without the former communists, who made spectacular gains on Sunday.

Klaus Wowereit, whose Social Democrats scored their best result in the capital for 30 years, opened coalition talks with two smaller parties after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implored him to shun the Party of Democratic Socialism. But many Social Democrats, including the Mayor, would prefer an alliance with the PDS, which would offer a bigger majority in city hall.

Through the day, the dispute raged between local Social Democrats and the Chancellery. "Supporters of the party have expressed very clearly where their priorities are," said Mr Schröder. Opinion polls showed 75 per cent of voters wanted to shun the PDS.

Mr Wowereit said that east Berlin, where almost half the voters had chosen the former communists, could no longer be ignored. On election night, he made clear his fears that the alternative arrangement, involving the mercurial Greens and the flaky Free Democrats, might fall apart quickly.

Such a coalition would only have a majority of two, but a partnership with the PDS would provide a safe cushion, allowing for possible defections. Chancellor Schröder said: "Stability is not a question of numbers."

Gregor Gysi, leader of the ex-communists, was eager to offer his support, suggesting the Greens could also be brought into the administration if that made Mr Wowereit feel more comfortable. There have been a few tentative "red-red" coalitions in the east at the regional level, though never in Berlin.

In the other Länder the PDS have proved reliable partners, while all previous administrations involving the Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal Free Democrats have ended in acrimony and failure.

Mr Wowereit's decision on Berlin will have national repercussions. Apart from the burden of history, Mr Schröder's party in Berlin would be saddled with a stridently anti-war coalition partner.

But ignoring Mr Gysi's troops is becoming increasingly difficult. In the words of an election officer, "the PDS bit through the Wall", winning more than 5 per cent of votes in west Berlin for the first time.

The only party with almost no chance of entering the administration is the Christian Democrat Union, which shed nearly half its votes. The debacle has rekindled talks on the national leadership, particularly the choice of who is to challenge Chancellor Schröder in next year's elections.

United for a day by their common grief, the heavyweights did not stick more knives into Angela Merkel, the chairwoman. There seems little point.

Ms Merkel's end is approaching; the only question is the precise timing of her overthrow. Edmund Stoiber, the right-wing Bavarian Prime Minister who already looks a shoe-in, says he can wait.