Election exposes east-west tensions in Germany
6 September 2005, BERLIN - Germany reunified 15 years ago under chancellor Helmut Kohl but time has not healed old east-west divisions and upcoming general elections have exposed deep-seated tensions between the country's two halves.
6 September 2005
BERLIN - Germany reunified 15 years ago under chancellor Helmut Kohl but time has not healed old east-west divisions and upcoming general elections have exposed deep-seated tensions between the country's two halves.
Part of the problem - as so often - is money.
With a staggering EUR 80 billion a year in public funds flowing from western Germany to prop up the former communist east, there is growing resentment among some voters in the west about the failure of eastern Germany to gain momentum.
Simmering resentment was brought to a head by Bavarian state Premier Edmund Stoiber who criticised the people in the east as "frustrated" and said they should not be allowed to decide the September 18 elections.
Stoiber's words clearly tapped into a sense of anger in the west over eastern Germany.
Never a popular figure in the east, an opinion poll for ARD TV showed support for Stoiber in eastern Germany crashing from 22 per cent to just 12 per cent.
But the comments have done little to dent the commanding conservative lead in opinion polls in the run-up to elections. Stoiber's Christian Social Union (CSU) and its sister party, the main opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) have together put up Angela Merkel as chancellor candidate.
Stoiber, many German political commentators believe, made his anti-east German gibe on purpose to build up support for the CDU/CSU in the west, where the biggest chunk of voters live.
Although opposition Chancellor-candidate Angela Merkel is from the east she has tended to promote herself as a national figure rather than to play up her background in the eastern part of the country.
Despite the initial euphoria generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, relations between west and east Germans have never been easy.
Even today, both sides still point to social differences as a result of growing up under two totally different political systems with party loyalties in the east far less entrenched than those in the western half.
Coming in the middle of an election campaign, Stoiber's remarks helped to again spark anger in the east and to again focus on the grim economic outlook facing many living in the region.
Indeed, with Germany in November marking the 16th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse, unemployment in the east is still over 18 per cent - double the level in the west.
While signs of new economic strength are emerging in Saxony and Thuringia states with the automotive, computer, optics and logistics sectors and along the Baltic Sea coast tourist belt, other parts of the east risk turning into a sort of German mezzogiorno.
Worst hit are rural Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-West Pommerania states where official unemployment is 25 per cent and hidden joblessness even higher.
Young people are leaving and rust-belt cities such as Eisenhuettenstadt and Wittenberge are shrinking and ageing rapidly.
Few east Germans want to return to the totalitarian days, but one result of high unemployment and a stalled economy has been to create a new fertile ground for extremist parties.
Last year rightists entered the state parliaments of Saxony and Brandenburg and a neo-Nazi march in Dresden in February drew over 5,000 rightists - the biggest such protest seen in Germany since the 1950s.
Even more perplexing for some in the west have been signs that people in the east who have grown unhappy with the sense of economic upheaval have become nostalgic for their old life in the communist German Democratic Republic.
Part of this is mere folklore but it includes a serious revival of the former communist party, which now forms part of a new hard-line leftwing party known as the Left Party.
Only a matter of months old, the Left Party has made enormous inroads into the east with some polls putting it ahead of both Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel's conservative CDU in the territory of former East Germany.
Bolstered by support from the east, the Left Party is expected to win up to 10 per cent and enter the German parliament with up to 50 deputies after election day. At present just two PDS members sit in the chamber.
Subject: German news