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Germans Set to Choose New Capital This Week

ON Thursday, Bonn's residents will have more than the summer's cherries, plums, and peaches to look over in the quaint market place here. An enormous movie screen is being installed at one end of the cobble-stoned square to carry a parliamentary debate live - a debate that will decide this city's future. Bonn, Berlin, or both? Where should the new Germany's seat of government be? This is what members of the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament, will be debating and then deciding on Thursday.

The issue overshadows all others in Germany. And the outcome, despite weeks of exhaustive consultation among politicians, is impossible to predict.

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``Sometimes, even I can't listen to what I've got to say anymore,'' quipped Bonn's mayor Hans Daniels after another unsuccessful attempt to forge a consensus between the pro-Bonners and pro-Berliners last week.

Feelings run deep over the Bonn-Berlin question and opinion is split. At last month's congress of the mainstream Social Democratic Party, for instance, Bonn beat Berlin as the favored seat of government among delegates by a single vote.

If it is this close on Thursday, as many politicians predict, there will be no peace in this country. That is why they have spent the last two weeks in almost daily meetings trying to find a solution that will satisfy both sides.

Several proposals call for splitting the government between the two cities, but the possibility remains that lawmakers will be unable to agree on how to do this and will demand a straight either-or vote on the issue.

The whole discussion, of course, is a result of reunification. Tiny Bonn, situated on the banks of the Rhine River, was always referred to as the ``provisional'' capital when Germany was divided. Since last October, when the two German states became one, Berlin has been renamed the country's official capital. But public opinion polls say about 40 percent of Germans want more than the return of a title to Germany's largest city. They want the return of the seat of government, as well.

Pro-Berliners argue that this is only right, since Berlin was the capital before the division of Germany. It also has the feel of a Rome or Paris, with its broad boulevards and grand monuments. Reunited Berlin, they say, is the perfect mirror of the new Europe, where East and West are drawing closer together. Further, the pro-Berliners add, Bonn is too provincial and far removed from the problems erupting in eastern Germany to understand much about what it actually takes to unify the country.

The pro-Bonners, who make up about 56 percent of the German public, counter that Bonn may have been called a ``provisional'' capital, but it has become a working capital that has proved to the rest of the world that Germany is a reliable democracy. Berlin, on the other hand, raises the specter of Prussian and Hitler Germany.

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Pulling the government out of Bonn would also strip it of its livelihood, taking 55,400 government jobs with it and just as many more when you count the florists, barbers, and other small businesses that depend on the government. And what would Bonn do with the 30 office buildings under construction in the government quarter here, as well as three museums and a new Bundestag building also being built?

BERLINERS may think that getting the seat of government will cinch their economic future, the Bonners warn, but what it will really create is an urban maelstrom: a congested city with soaring real estate prices that cannot accommodate an influx of people. Moreover, is it really worth 35 billion to 45 billion marks ($19 billion to $25 billion) to move to Berlin when the federal government is already spending 100 billion marks a year to prop up the east?

German lawmakers, who believe it is possible to negotiate one's way out of just about any crisis, have been trying to bridge these two opinions with compromises. One calls for putting the parliament in Berlin and leaving the chancellor's office and his Cabinet in Bonn. Another calls for putting the figurehead presidency in Berlin as well as the upper house of parliament and ``outposts'' of the Chancellery and Foreign Ministry. The legislative and executive branches would remain mostly intact in Bonn.

``Nothing is too odd to be investigated,'' criticized the daily Die Welt last week. The press in general has been highly critical of the search for consensus, saying lawmakers simply lack the courage to make a hard decision. As of Friday, no compromise plan had won much support.

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