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Old guard in Saxony comeback

BONN - The successors to the East German Communist Party, the PDS, emerged yesterday not just as the most obvious gainers in an election, but also as potential king-makers, for the first time since German unity in 1990, writes Steve Crawshaw.

Provisional results in elections in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt confirmed that the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), led by Christoph Bergner, remained the largest single party in the regional parliament. But their lead over the Social Democrats was tiny - 34.4 per cent, against 34 per cent. The previous coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed to be returned to parliament, in the latest of a succession of defeats. And a former party leader, Otto Lambsdorff, spoke yesterday of a 'threat to the party's existence'.

'Now everything is on the line,' said Klaus Kinkel, Foreign Minister and head of the Free Democrats. Mr Kinkel said the Free Democrats' relationship with the Christian Democrats is part of his party's problem. It's the wrong impression, he said, but many people see the Free Democrats as subservient to their coalition partners. 'Now we have to show more confidence' or lose even more support, Mr Kinkel warned.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) hinted, meanwhile, that they might form a regional minority government with the Greens. The balance of power would then be held by the PDS, which scored 20 per cent, and was rejoicing at its new influence.

The PDS said it would 'tolerate' an SPD-Green coalition. The SPD must now make an unhappy choice. It can be junior partner in a grand coalition, with a Christian Democrat prime minister; or it can play the leading role in a coalition where it will be open to accusations that the PDS is the back-seat driver.