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Red and Green Saxony link worries SPD

GERMANY'S opposition Social Democrats (SPD) win a valuable political prize this week but some in the party have been reluctant to accept it - because it offers the SPD's opponents, the Christian Democrats, an electoral stick with which to beat them.

Following an agreement that was officially approved at the weekend, Reinhold Hoppner, a Social Democrat, will this week be confirmed as Prime Minister of the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt. A minority government of Social Democrats and Greens will replace the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU).

Normally, that would be an obvious reason for celebration. But there is a problem for the SPD. The minority government can take power only by courtesy of the successor party to the East German Communists (PDS). The PDS has said it will 'tolerate' the new coalition. Judging by the first reactions of the Christian Democrats, such half-hearted support is likely to fuel endless attacks in the run-up to federal elections in three months.

The Christian Democrats are furious at losing the post which they believe was rightfully theirs. The CDU was ahead of the SPD by a whisker in last month's election - 34.4 per cent, against 34 per cent - and had already begun celebrating in the confident belief that Christoph Bergner, the CDU Prime Minister, would remain in power, despite the considerable losses that the ruling coalition sustained (the CDU's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed even to get back into parliament).

The CDU wanted a 'grand coalition' of Social and Christian Democrats, in which the CDU would keep the premiership. But an exultant SPD could not resist the temptation of snatching the first prize in order to present Saxony-Anhalt as an 'SPD gain'.

But it has proved to be an ambiguous gain. The SPD has been concerned, above all, to distance itself from the PDS. Indeed, in many respects, the PDS is the SPD's worst enemy in the east, because it siphons off a large number of SPD votes. By allowing the Saxony-Anhalt coalition to be created only by grace of the PDS, the Social Democrats have let the CDU tar them with the 'Communist' brush. The SPD protests that the CDU has also co-operated with the PDS on a local level - but the protest is almost drowned out.

In the east, the relative strength of the PDS - it gained 20 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt - is a fact of life. In the west, however, the idea that former Communists can be treated as a serious discussion partner for the SPD is anathema. The SPD itself is deeply split on the issue, thus presenting an easy target for CDU attacks.

At the beginning of this year, the SPD had a clear lead and few commentators gave Mr Kohl much chance of survival. Since then, Mr Kohl has steadily crept up from behind and the CDU is now ahead in the polls. The SPD has tried hard to hit back. But the issue of co-operation with the PDS has put the party leadership clearly on the defensive in the lead-up to the elections.