Idle Germans' disappointment likely to color today's voting

Despair in Brandenburg, Saxony over unrealized promise of reunification

September 19, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 steel worker whose factory has shrunk from 10,000 jobs to 750 over the past 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, which are expected to show sizable gains for far-right and former Communist parties. Fifteen years after the toppling 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, eggs hurled at him and a slap from an irate constituent while pushing reforms that seek to trim a generous welfare state and make the country economically competitive. They also point to a larger problem: Despite having spent more than $1.2 trillion on reunification, Germany remains a troubled and divided nation.

A recent poll found that 24 percent of West Germans and 12 percent of Easterners would favor a new wall between them. Such sentiments reveal that the pronouncements and euphoria that accompanied the early days of reunification have not bridged the problems of inheriting a Communist state with bloated industries and a work force ill-prepared for globalization.

Two standards of living exist in Germany. Unemployment in the West is 8.4 percent, compared with 18.3 percent 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 percent to 8 percent of the vote and increase its standing in the Brandenburg state parliament.

Voters cautioned

The Social Democrats and 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 the National Democratic Party, or NPD, which the government is trying to outlaw for alleged Nazi tendencies, may win 10 percent 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 types of reforms are necessary to overcome years of stagnant economic growth. But cutting health and social programs has 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 emerges 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 percent. In parliamentary elections in the western state of Saarland this month, his Social Democrats won 31 percent of the vote, down from 44 percent in 1999. The good news for Schroeder is that Germany's other major party - the Christian Democrats - has yet to persuade most voters that it can fix the problems of Europe's largest economy.

No `blossoming'

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat who presided over reunification in 1989, recently announced that years of economic turmoil were forcing him to retract his prediction that East Germany would become a "blossoming landscape."

Lars Fritsch leaned on a bench near a Brandenburg stand selling beer and ice cream. A bunch of men were gathered there, and no one seemed in a particular hurry to get someplace else. An unemployed mechanic who is more disillusioned than angry, Fritsch said he'll vote for anybody but Schroeder.

"Reunification is a failure," he said. "In old East Germany even the laziest and most stupid had a job. You had to work. But now you can't find a job, and the state doesn't care."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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