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East Germans Feeling Separate and Unequal

Voter discontent amid a jobless rate higher than in the west is expected to lead to state election gains by the far right and ex-communists.

September 19, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BRANDENBURG, Germany — The stone goddesses are flaking on Big Garden Street. The steel mill started its slide years ago. The textile plant has fared no better. Steeples glimmer above the rooftops, but the hopeful flicker doesn't obscure what Otto Mahler sees as one long betrayal.

"When East and West Germany reunified after communism, they promised us the world," said Mahler, a retired steelworker whose factory has cut its 10,000 jobs to 750 over the last decade. "They said we'd all have an equal standard of living. We were deceived in an awful way. They destroyed our businesses and enriched themselves."

Mahler's kind of bitterness is likely to jolt German politics during elections today in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony that are expected to result in sizable gains for far-right and former communist parties. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, economic and social reforms by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his Social Democrats have angered an east still struggling with persistent unemployment and perceived indignities.

The chancellor has endured insults, hurled eggs and a slap from an irate constituent while pushing reforms that seek to trim a generous welfare state and make the country economically competitive. The reforms also point to a larger dilemma: Despite spending more than $1.2 trillion on reunification, Germany remains a troubled and divided nation.

A recent Forsa poll found that 24% of west Germans and 12% of easterners would favor a new wall between them. Such sentiments reveal that the poetic pronouncements and euphoria that accompanied the early days of reunification have not bridged the problems inherited from a communist state with bloated industries and a workforce ill-prepared for globalization.

Two standards of living exist in Germany. Unemployment in the west is 8.4% compared with 18.3% in the east. Cuts in long-term unemployment compensation -- slated to affect 2 million laid-off workers next year -- are expected to hit especially hard in the east, where new factories and investment have been scarce and federal subsidies will diminish in coming years.

"Schroeder is the best advertisement for us," said Bernhard Droese, an official with the far-right German People's Union, which, according to projections, may capture 5% to 8% of the vote and increase its standing in the Brandenburg state parliament. "Every day Schroeder's in power means more votes for us."

The Social Democrats and their rival Christian Democrats remain the dominant parties throughout the nation, but gains by far-right and former communist groups would add a populist dynamic to German politics. Schroeder has cautioned voters not to allow resentment to veer into extremism marked by anti-immigration and isolationist policies that for years have resonated with fringe parties.

"Germany is a free and democratic state," he said in a radio broadcast as polls showed that the National Democratic Party, which the government is trying to outlaw for alleged Nazi tendencies, might win 10% of the vote in Saxony. He added that anything "connecting us to the brown [Nazi] cesspool damages us, damages Germany and damages our standing with international investors."

Most Germans acknowledge that some type of reform is necessary to overcome years of stagnant economic growth. But cuts in health and social programs have unnerved much of society, which until a few years ago was accustomed to government-funded spa vacations.

Ralf Foth, a laid-off construction manager in the city of Brandenburg, west of Berlin, said he was willing to accept additional tough times if the nation emerged stronger.

"I'm 45 years old," Foth said. "I was well off, but I had to sell my house and now I'm starting my own business. The problem was that the billions of dollars pumped into the east ended up in the hands of local officials with no experience. I want Schroeder to follow through on these reforms. We just want a chance to work."

Schroeder is taking a political pummeling. His party's nationwide approval rating is about 26%. In parliamentary elections in the western state of Saarland this month, his Social Democrats won 31% of the vote, down from 44% in 1999. The good news for Schroeder is that Germany's other major party -- the Christian Democrats -- has yet to convince most voters that it can fix the problems of Europe's largest economy.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat who presided over reunification in 1990, recently announced that years of economic turmoil was forcing him to retract his prediction that east Germany would become a "blossoming landscape."

A train ride through the east, past fields of rolled wheat and imprints of the Cold War, is a glimpse at an unfinished dream. The countryside is dotted with jobless men sipping beer in the sun and campaign posters of airbrushed politicians.

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