East-West divide lives on in German politics
By Suzanne Kelly
BERLIN (CNN) -- Helmut Kohl was once regarded as a conquering hero in communist East Germany. Adoring crowds hailed the burly chancellor as their savior in the heady days after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Later, after unification, he was blessed with overwhelming support at the ballot box from grateful eastern German voters.
But eight years after unification, Kohl is now jeered by hecklers hurling eggs and insults when he campaigns in the East. The "chancellor of unity," as he likes to be known, is in danger of losing the September 27 federal election because of weak support in the east.
Most polls show Kohl will win only 28 percent of the vote in the East, down from 39 percent in 1994 and 42 percent in the 1990 election, which came just three months after unification.
He is fighting hard to win a fifth four-year term, reminding hostile crowds in the East that they can thank him for their strong deutschmarks and the world's most modern telephone network. But voters want jobs and a future, not a history lesson. Kohl's favorable ratings in the East have now plunged to 18 percent, and pollsters warn that his waning support from Eastern voters may cost him the election.
What went wrong?
Kohl's slumping popularity is in many ways a reflection of the growing frustration in the formerly communist region toward the Western style of capitalism and an increasingly high unemployment rate that has outpaced the national average.
Usually an incurable optimist when talking about the "miracle of unification," Kohl recently admitted that he was mistaken to assume that companies in the West would reach out and help rebuild the East. Kohl said he had to accept the sad fact that many Western companies bought Eastern rivals only so they could shut them down.
The good old days
Even though Easterners were once enthusiastic about unification, they have long since grown tired of feeling like "second-class Germans" -- their wages are about 25 percent lower than in the West, many still live in decaying housing, and much of their pre-1989 work experience and lifestyle has been viewed in the reunited Germany as outmoded and, worse, contaminated by communism.
A recent survey by the conservative Allensbach Institute found that a majority of Easterners no longer identify with the capitalist system. They often say they feel lost in the maze of Western laws and regulations. Sometimes they even wryly refer to the events of 1990 not as "unification" but rather a "hostile takeover."
Waves of nostalgia for some of the more pleasant aspects of life under the hammer and sickle have swept across the East in recent years. Low-cost housing and mass transit, free child care, close family ties and company-organized holiday trips are some of the things the "Ossies," or Easterners, say they miss.
On the other side of the former Iron Curtain are the "Wessies," who say they miss many things about the old West Germany: taxes and crime were lower, there were fewer traffic jams, and they lived in a smaller, more prosperous nation. Economists warn that it will take decades before the economic conditions in the East catch up to those in the West.
An alarming surge in support for far-right parties and a disturbing increase in xenophobic violence is another reflection of despair in the East. With unemployment especially high among younger Easterners, the far-right German People's Union (DVU) party launched a massive campaign to woo the youthful underclass and won an astonishing 13 percent of the vote in the Eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in April.
The DVU is expected to have similarly strong results in state elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern that run parallel to the federal vote on September 27.
Few ties that bind
Reinhard Hoeppner, state premier of Saxony-Anhalt, said recently that eastern and western Germans had actually grown further apart during the eight years since unification than they did in the 45 years they were separated by the Cold War. A look at German marriage statistics seems to support that view.
Eastern and western Berliners, for instance, almost never marry each other. Only about 4 percent of the city's marriages are made up of couples who lived on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Polls indicate that western Germans are far more likely to marry non-Germans than Easterners, and vice versa.
Sociologists say that between a third and half of Berlin marriages should be East-West affairs. That so few Ossies and Wessies tie the knot is evidence, they say, of the marked antipathy.
It's also symbolic of the weakening relationship between Easterners and their chancellor. Kohl is hoping that come September 27, Ossies will give him one more chance.
Suzanne Kelly is a freelance journalist based in Bonn and Berlin. She has reported on Germany for several radio broadcasters such as National Public Radio, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands and Blue Danube Radio in Austria.
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