BERLIN — When the sun shines for days, skinheads start agreeing with ultra-leftists, and a Bavarian leader suggests his countrymen in the east are dolts, one begins to wonder whether Germany is Germany anymore.
Giddy, nasty and perplexing describe a national election campaign that has whirled through vacation season like an exotic storm of strange sound bites and curious personalities.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's bid for a third term on Sept. 18 has led to a sideshow of foibles and angry rhetoric from liberals and conservatives that have aggravated animosities between east and west, rich and working class.
The leader of the Christian Social Union, Edmund Stoiber, insulted a large swath of the country by declaring, "If everywhere was like Bavaria, we wouldn't have any problems at all. Unfortunately, not all sections of the population are as intelligent as they are in Bavaria. I don't want the election to be decided in the east again." That brought rebukes from fellow conservatives and the press of acting like a "Bavarian prince" and being part of the "Machiavellians in Munich."
Stoiber's remarks underscored the prejudice east Germans have perceived for years as they struggle to fuse with the more prosperous west. Days before Stoiber, who is Bavaria's governor, offered his opinion of the east, another conservative politician, Joerg Schoenbohm, offended "ossies" by suggesting that communism had "proletarianized" and deranged an east German mother accused of killing nine of her babies and burying them in flower pots.
What happened to all that goodwill between East and West generated nearly 16 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited? Euphoria and faith in government have diminished amid an 11.6% unemployment rate, frustration over globalization and a sluggish economy. And the closed mills and rusty factories of the east are a reminder that reunification -- so far costing $1 trillion -- is a tremendous weight on the future.
The west Germany of short working hours, long holidays and good pay once epitomized Europe's vision of social and economic harmony. These days, Germans wince at the near-certain prospect of serious concessions to right their economy.
Polls show Schroeder and his liberal coalition running behind a conservative alliance led by Angela Merkel, a physicist, who would become the country's first female chancellor. Schroeder's reelection is hampered by his party's 28% approval rating and a belief by most Germans that he is incapable of energizing the continent's largest economy.
Merkel and the conservatives are a choice most Germans are accepting grudgingly. She recently compounded the worries of an already insecure populace when she mixed up "gross" and "net" when discussing incomes. Such mistakes have many eyeing alternative parties.
Candidate Oskar Lafontaine, a former finance minister and defector from the Social Democrats, has been reborn as a tan and happy populist. Rising from the country's disenchantment, his Left Party offers a bewildering mix of ultra-liberalism and romantic populism. Two months ago, it was dismissed as a novelty. Today it registers 8% to 10% in the polls and will probably win seats in parliament and a voice in a coalition government.
Lafontaine says the rich are too rich, the poor are too many and Germany will never be a sovereign state as long as there are U.S. military bases on its soil. His motto: "Rage will turn into resistance." He said Germans were "disappointed and desperate. You would also be disappointed if you were jobless for years and now classified" as a welfare recipient. He draws wild cheers from the east.
The Left Party excites many of the young angry men with shiny heads who flock to the radical right-wing National Democratic Party. The neo-Nazi organization feels it has been upstaged, blaming Lafontaine for stealing its message and commanding media attention it has coveted for decades.
Among others who don't swoon over Lafontaine is Bild, the nation's largest tabloid. The paper calls Lafontaine a "luxury leftist" who speaks for the downtrodden while sitting on a big wallet. It recently published photos of the dapper populist's vacation spot -- a $3,700-a-week villa on the Spanish coast. The headline: "Here, Oscar is recovering from the fight for the small man."
An author, publicist and professional politician, Lafontaine made jest of the attack at recent rally: "I'm standing here with my luxury tie, luxury suit, in luxury shoes. I came in a luxury plane after spending a holiday on a luxury island."
The other candidates seem less jovial. Stoiber's been told to hush up about the east. Merkel is dissecting economic charts and indexes. For his part, Schroeder is rolling up his sleeves and punching the air, trying to turn the dispiriting poll numbers in his direction. He has taken to quoting Goethe's Faust, the tale of a desperate man's deal with the devil.