EAST BERLIN (AP) _ East Germany's government averted collapse Friday after its second-biggest faction agreed to remain in the coalition that will dissolve the country in December.

The Social Democrats had threatened to resign from the coalition government of Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere unless a dispute over united German elections was reached.

They agreed to remain in the government after de Maiziere appeared to back away from a demand that East Germany remain a separate country until after united German elections are held on Dec. 2.

Under that plan, the German states would hold separate elections for the same Parliament and then formally unify.

The Social Democrats had demanded that East Germany dissolve itself Dec. 1 and merge with West Germany so a single all-German election could be held the following day.

The seemingly trivial dispute over whether East Germany should dissolve Dec. 1 or Dec. 2 - and whether the two Germanys should vote as one country or two - could help determine which political factions get seats in Parliament.

De Maiziere and other Christian Democratic leaders had said earlier that single elections could be held after unification takes place. The Social Democrats on Friday trumpeted their success on the issue.

But de Maiziere appeared to qualify that again in an interview to be published Saturday in the West German newspaper Die Welt.

De Maiziere said unification could be formally voted on by East Germany's 400-member Parliament before elections, but actually take place afterward.

In the interview, released in advance of publication, de Maiziere also said single German elections are ''not possible.''

His comments were yet another twist in the political wrangling that has consumed parties in both German states for the past week and a half.

The complicated argument represents maneuvering by parties seeking the most favorable election conditions.

The small Liberal Party, allied with the left-leaning Social Democrats on the issue, resigned from de Maiziere's seven-party governing coalition Tuesday over the dispute.

But the decision by the Social Democrats to remain in de Maiziere's coalition averted a crisis that threatened to seriously complicate the process of unification.

Because the Social Democrats remained, de Maiziere's government still controls the two-thirds Parliament majority needed to unify with West Germany.

A Christian Democrat deputy party chief, Horst Korbella, said the Social Democrats' decision to remain the government has ''made a breakthrough possible.''

De Maiziere's conservative Christian Democrats had advocated separate elections so smaller East German parties could have a better chance of winning seats in a unified Parliament.

De Maiziere has said special accommodations should be made to ensure that smaller East German parties have a voice in a big new all-German Parliament.

But a lower limit on representation also would help the archconservative German Social Union, a key political ally of de Maiziere's Christian Democrats.

The Social Democrats believe the lower election representation limit would hurt them by allowing smaller leftist groups to get in Parliament and splinter their constituency.

De Maiziere is still pressing to lower the minimum percentage of votes a party needs to get in Parliament.

Under West German law, parties need 5 percent of the total German vote to be represented in Parliament. No minimum is required in East Germany.

The Social Democrats are seeking to retain the 5 percent limit, which is called for in the West German constitution that will be the law of a united German land.

The sides have been discussing compromises, including requiring that parties get only 5 percent in their respective nations, or 5 percent in each of the 16 total states of both nations.