Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 9 News List

East-west divide exposed by election

Although it's been 15 years since unification, the divisions between the two sides are all too apparent in the run up to Germany's general election

DPA , BERLIN

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Germany reunified 15 years ago under chancellor Helmut Kohl, but it seems that 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 US$98 billion dollars 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 criticized the people in the east as "frustrated" and said they should not be allowed to decide the Sept. 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 percent to just 12 percent.

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 candidate for chancellor.

Stoiber, many German political commentators believe, made his anti-east German jibe on purpose to build up support for the CDU/CSU in the west, where the biggest chunk of voters live.

Although opposition 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 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 percent -- 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 percent 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.

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