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Could Former Communist Party Hold Balance of Power for Berlin? - 2001-10-20

Berliners go to the polls Sunday in an election which could leave the successor to the former East German Communist Party holding the balance of power for the first time in the united German capital. But the party's newfound pacifism is stirring as much controversy as its Communist past.

The party that once divided Berlin is now known as the Party of Democratic Socialism - or PDS - and claims to believe in democracy and human rights. It still polls the largest number of votes at every election in the former East Berlin, and is in a ruling coalition in one German state in the former Communist sector.

But it has never before been considered a possible coalition partner in the restored capital city, where the memories of the wall that divided Berlin between 1961 and 1989 are still all too vivid.

However, things have changed in Germany since Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came to power. He has told his party's candidate for mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, that he won't stand in the way of an alliance with the PDS.

Yet even today, the conservative Christian Democratic Union - or CDU - is campaigning against a possible coalition of social democrats and former Communists as "a betrayal of the past."

And Mr. Wowereit, who may himself make history as the German capital's first openly gay mayor, has tried as far as possible to distance himself from the former Communists. It is not only their past which bothers him, but their opposition to U.S.-led attacks on military targets in Afghanistan.

But as Berliners get ready to vote Sunday, polls show there's a strong constituency for the PDS's anti-war stand.

It is the Christian Democrats who look like the most likely losers. The city is voting two years ahead of schedule because the Social Democrats walked out of a coalition with the CDU, blaming the conservatives for a scandal of mismanagement and fraud at the city's municipal bank. The bank's troubles left the city with a $3 billion loss that raised the city's debt burden to $36 billion.

The Social Democrats look likely to win the largest number of votes; polls predict about 35 percent for them to 26 percent for the CDU. The main question is whether Mr. Wowereit will be forced to make an alliance with the PDS in order to become mayor - or whether the smaller Green Party and the liberal Free Democrats win enough support to squeeze the PDS out of a any coalition.