BERLIN -- In the first local election in eastern Germany since unification, former Communists yesterday staged an impressive comeback that made them a political force in the state of Brandenburg surrounding Berlin.
Even more significant in national terms, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats fell from first place into a virtual dead heat with the former Communists.
Preliminary results yesterday showed the Christian Democrats with 22.5 percent of the vote, and the former Communists, now known as the Party for Democratic Socialism, or PDS, with 21.3 percent. The main opposition Social Democrats were the big winner, with 34.3 percent.
The evening news on national television described the election as a disaster for Mr. Kohl's party.
It is the latest in a series of political setbacks for the chancellor, who in the past 10 days has watched his chosen candidate for president be forced to step down amid an avalanche of criticism, then seen an entire state Cabinet led by his party resign amid scandal.
Yesterday's results showed that dissatisfied voters found the far left attractive but appeared to shun the extreme right almost completely. No extreme right-wing party scored enough votes even to be counted in preliminary results.
Although yesterday's election involved only one of Germany's 16 states, the results are considered significant nationally.
Except for the eastern parts of Berlin, which were involved in city elections 18 months ago, yesterday's election marks the first test of voter sympathies in the former Communist east since Mr. Kohl won his landslide re-election in the afterglow of unification in December 1990.
The results are especially critical because they come on the eve of the 1994 "super election year" in Germany, when Mr. Kohl himself will face the voters in federal parliamentary elections in one of 19 scheduled votes.
"We're more than pleased," said Juergen Reents, one of 16 Democratic Socialists in the 662-seat federal Parliament. "This will finally put to rest all talk that the PDS is on its last legs."