Foibles, angry rhetoric swirl in run-up to German elections

Campaign aggravates animosities between east, west

rich, working class

September 13, 2005|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN - When 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 whirled through the summer like an exotic storm of strange sound bites and curious personalities.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's bid Sunday for a third term has led to a sideshow of foibles and angry rhetoric from liberals and conservatives that have aggravated animosities between east and west, and rich and working class.

The leader of the Christian Social Union, Edmund Stoiber, humiliated 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." That brought rebukes from fellow conservatives and the press of Stoiber for acting like a "Bavarian prince" and being part of the "Machiavellian in Munich."

Stoiber's remarks underscored the perceived prejudice east Germans have felt for years as they struggle to fuse with the more prosperous west.

What happened to all that good will between east and west nearly 16 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited? Euphoria and faith in government have diminished amid an 11.6 percent 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 predict Schroeder and his liberal coalition will be defeated by a conservative alliance led by Angela Merkel, a physicist, who would become the country's first female chancellor. Schroeder's re-election is hampered by his party's 28 percent approval rating and a belief by most Germans that he is incapable of energizing the Continent's largest economy.

Oskar Lafontaine wants to improve everybody's life. The former finance minister and defector from the Social Democrats is 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 percent to 10 percent in the polls and will probably win seats in the 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 are "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 news media attention it has coveted for decades.

Among others who don't swoon over Lafontaine is Bild, the nation's largest tabloid. The newspaper 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."

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 polling numbers in his direction. He has taken to quoting Goethe's Faust, the tale of a desperate man's deal with the devil.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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