SPD fears embrace of ex-Communists

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The Independent Online
'We've never had such a crazy situation,' says Gunter Verheugen, chief strategist of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) - the not-quite winners and not-quite losers of this month's elections in Germany. 'Suddenly now, after the election, people are calling for change. We could have done with that before election day.'

If attitudes to Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrats are contradictory, the paradoxes facing the Social Democrats are as great. The SPD's failure by a whisker to topple Chancellor Kohl's majority may have made life easier for the party, by enabling it to avoid taking tough decisions.

If the party had gained a few more seats they could have unseated Mr Kohl, but only with the help of the successor party to the East German Communists, the PDS. Rudolf Scharping, the SPD party leader, was determined to reject this possibility. There would have been controversy in the party and arguments between east and west. As Mr Verheugen, the party's general secretary, acknowledged: 'We would be in an uncomfortable position.'

Partly because of the consensus nature of German politics, many in Bonn assume that Mr Kohl's coalition, with its slim, 10-seat majority, may not survive. But, in an interview with the Independent, Mr Verheugen played down the suggestion that the SPD might wrestle the government coalition into submission in the main parliamentary chamber, the Bundestag, by using the veto in the second chamber, the Bundesrat, where the SPD has a majority.

'The idea that we should force a collapse of the government through the Bundesrat suggests an extreme use of it, which is not envisaged in the constitution,' he said.

Mr Verheugen makes it clear that Mr Kohl's coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), a party of which Mr Verheugen was once general- secretary, are no longer credible partners. The SPD, suggests Mr Verheugen, would not want an alliance with the FDP if it were offered. 'One doesn't want to have a rotting corpse in one's room.'

The FDP scraped back into the federal parliament by courtesy of Christian Democrat (CDU) voters, worried about the collapse of the coalition. Mr Verheugen argues that it would now be impossible for the FDP to return to its radical liberal traditions and recreate an alliance with the Social Democrats, with whom they were once in coalition: 'I don't believe in the chances of the FDP renewing itself . . . It is too late for them to paddle back to the liberal bank of the river. That space is now occupied, by the Greens.'

Mr Verheugen is frank about the SPD's difficulties in eastern Germany. In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt earlier this year, the SPD did a half-deal with the PDS to form a minority government. The CDU was delighted with the propaganda boost. Now, in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the SPD has toyed with the idea of repeating the Saxony-Anhalt trick, with the explicit support of the PDS. Mr Scharping has threatened the local SPD leader, to bring him to order.

But, as Mr Verheugen acknowledges, it is a curious row. In east Germany, local co- operation with the PDS - which has re-invented itself as a grumbling, left-wing opposition party, and which gained almost 20 per cent of the east German vote - is widely accepted. It is only in the west that the issue is sensitive. Mr Verheugen admits: 'For Mecklenburg it would be quite normal. If one could isolate the problem in Mecklenburg, then that would be different. But one can't. In the western SPD, feelings are very strong . . . Clearly, this is a west German matter.'

The admission is another indication of the curious slew of German politics.

The sensibilities of the west determine the behaviour of the east. The problem is acknowledged but cannot be solved.