BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party made strong gains Sunday in Berlin as voters confirmed their support for the capital's first openly gay mayor and lifted the former East German communists within reach of power in the reunited city for the first time.
Berliners handed the conservative Christian Democrats a crushing defeat, according to projections made by pollsters based on partial returns and broadcast on ZDF television. The party was tarnished by a bank scandal that helped trigger the June collapse of the city administration it dominated for a decade. The collapse prompted Sunday's election.
The voting was for the city's legislature, which elects the mayor. Schroeder's Social Democrats, led by interim Mayor Klaus Wowereit, won 30.8 percent, up from 22.4 percent in the last election two years ago, according to the projections. The result makes them the top force in Berlin for the first time since 1971.
Wowereit, who became the capital's first openly gay mayor in June, is almost certain to remain in office. His party's partner in Berlin's current coalition government, the Greens, remained stable at 10.2 percent, according to ZDF. It did not say what percentage of the vote its projections were based on.
The breakdown made it likely Wowereit will need a third partner for a new coalition -- possibly the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, which has not held power in Berlin since 1990.
Strong in eastern Berlin, the ex-communists swiftly staked a claim to a role in running the capital after winning a projected 21.3 percent, up from 17.7 percent two years ago.
"I think east and west should both be represented in this government," declared Carola Freundl, their leader in the city parliament.
The Social Democrats' party chief in Berlin, Peter Strieder, told ZDF "we will talk with all the parties in the coming weeks."
Another possible partner for Wowereit's Social Democrats are the pro-business Free Democrats, expected to win about 9.5 percent of the vote -- up from 2.2 percent last time.
Conservatives take beating
ZDF projections showed the Christian Democrats winning 23.7 percent of the vote, plummeting from 40.8 percent in 1999 after a gaffe-strewn campaign by mayoral candidate Frank Steffel.
"We got a lesson from the voters. This is a painful defeat," Steffel said.
Before attention was diverted by the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the campaign focused largely on bickering over whether the reformed communists are fit to govern. Berlin's new government will have to tackle $36 billion in debt after a decade of economic troubles.
Sunday's ballot was seen as a test for Schroeder's coalition of Social Democrats and the Greens, who have lost ground in a series of regional votes.