Twice every month, with Germanic precision, Lothar Drewitz rises early to spend his entire day wandering the grim corridors of a notorious old building in the heart of Merseburg. Fashioned of soiled brick and crumbling mortar, the place was once widely known—and widely dreaded—by the 40,000 inhabitants of the gritty industrial town on the banks of the Saale river in eastern Germany, 150 km southwest of Berlin. For not long ago, before Berlin’s Wall tumbled, it housed the regional headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.
Now, it is the Merseburg district’s unemployment office. And Drewitz has come to know it well because he is one of the casualties of Germany’s otherwise vaunted reunification. When the Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Drewitz’s life came crashing down with it. “It has been a disaster for me,” says the 50-year-old metallurgical engineer as he sits disconsolately in the still-forbidding building. “I lost everything: my job, my wife, my son, my future. I wish it had never happened.”
The sentiment is shared by more than a few of Drewitz’s compatriots in what used to be known as the German Democratic Republic. Like him, they have been sorely disappointed by what has happened since the cataclysmic event that Germans on both sides of the political divide refer to simply as the Wende—the Turn. Like Drewitz, they seethe with a barely concealed outrage that the union of the two Germanys has produced neither the prosperity nor the “flowering landscape” promised by Chancellor Helmut Kohl when he boldly, some say bullishly, engineered it after the downfall of Erich Honecker’s Communist regime in the East. And if the pundits and the pollsters are correct, that widespread discontent among the 15.5 million former East Germans will play a critical role in determining the political future of the entire 82-millionstrong country in elections set for Sunday. “The outcome will be decided in the east,” says political scientist Peter Lösche of the University of Göttingen. “The voters there now have it in their power to pick who is going to run this country for the next four years and, in the process, become the single most powerful politician in Europe.” The winner will also lead the world’s third-largest economy, making him a key global player as financial turmoil batters international markets and the potent—but untested—euro currency debuts in January across 11 European nations, anchored by Germany.
On the surface at least, the choice facing voters on Sept. 27 could not be more stark. On one side sits the 68-year-old Kohl, a plodding, albeit towering, figure who presides over the longest-surviving government of any major Western power. He has been German chancellor for the last 16 years, chairman of the right-of-centre Christian Democratic Union party for the last 25. Confronting him as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, is Ger-
Germany’s long-ruling leader fights an election that is too close to call
hard Schröder, 56, prime minister since 1990 of the state of Lower Saxony in western Germany. Smooth-tongued and media-sawy, Schröder is a moderate leftist often compared to British Prime Minister Tony Blair because of his pragmatic politics and to U.S. President Bill Clinton for less savory reasons involving women. Schröder has been married four times, the last union occurring after an adulterous liaison with a journalist 20 years his junior and a messy divorce that saw his third wife throw him out of the family home in Hanover and then publish a widely read book about the affair.
That Schröder not only survived the highly public scandal but, two years later, holds a marginal lead in the polls over his rival provides a measure of the difference between electorates in North America and on the European continent. The summer-long German campaign has featured little of the glitz and media frenzy that accompanies similar efforts in the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly the United States. Schroder’s campaign comes closest to that style, the result perhaps of the quiet advice his strategists have solicited from Blair’s Labour party machine and Clinton’s Democrats. But even Schroder’s appearances are tame affairs, rigidly scripted, routinely conducted.
In the town of Brandenburg, 60 km west of Berlin, it is a rainy afternoon in the riverside park named in honor of the German poet Heinrich Heine. The air is heavy with the blue smoke and sweet scent of grilling bratwurst, emanating from a line of canopied booths
set up on the bank of the swift-running Havel. The crowd, hindered by the rain and a local transit strike, is sparse, no more than two or three hundred. They cluster around the bratwurst booths or stand under umbrellas on the slick grass in front of a large stage, where an oompah-pah band is belting out German folk tunes under a blue nylon canopy embroidered with the Social Democrats’ slogan, “ Wir sind bereit"—We are prepared. On the whole, the assembled voters do not seem overly excited by what they are about to witness. “I’m just here to listen,” shrugs Marko Bindseil, 19, an army conscript on leave from his unit who will cast his first vote on Sunday. “But I’ll tell you this,” he adds, sipping beer from a plastic cup, “none of our politicians impress me very much.”
Schröder—impeccable in tailored blue, a broad smile on his face, hair the color of marmalade—arrives precisely on time. He wastes no time glad-handing or mingling with the crowd but proceeds directly to the stage. After deftly turning aside a lone heckler protesting the shutdown of a local steel plant, the SPD’s standard-bearer smoothly delivers his pitch. It is heavy on social-democrat bromides. “I say to you,” he declares, “that I will never allow the question of higher education to depend on mama and papa’s wallet.” There is a reference to Germany’s 4.1 million unemployed, 10.6 per cent of the workforce, and another to the Kohl government’s program to cut pensions. “The government’s old and tired,” he finishes. “It’s time for a change.” And then he is gone, as quickly as he arrived.
In his wake, Schröder leaves at least a few satisfied voters. “A good speech,” says riverboat captain Bernd Erdmann, 41, who suggests that he might even be tempted to switch his allegiance from Kohl’s CDU, which got his vote in 1994. ‘Well, I will certainly vote for him,” interjects wife Elke, 38, with some heat. “Kohl’s been around for far too long as it is.”
A few days later, the subject of Frau Erdmann’s irritation is in west Berlin, peddling his own message to an affluent crowd assembled not far from the trendy cafés and expensive shops that line the Kurfürstendamm, the broad, tree-lined avenue that has
become one of the symbols of modern German prosperity. There is another oompah-pah band pounding out another German folk tune but there is no bratwurst and no beer for sale at Wittenbergplatz when Kohl speaks. The chancellor, rumpled as ever, looks a little tired. But he manages to speak for a full hour in his trademark flat monotone, completely devoid of drama. He tells the assembled voters what he has been telling the German electorate since the campaign began, warning them that now is not the time for “experiments,” that “stability above all” is required as Germany “moves into the new century.” He does not have to explain to his listeners the meaning of his remarks. His mere presence does that for him—massive, solid, dependable.
Kohl’s message may lack inspiration but, against all odds, it has been having some impact. Over the course of the campaign, the chancellor has managed to cut Schroder’s once-commanding 10point lead in the polls to just two points late last week, a margin so narrow that Germany’s pollsters were refusing to predict the outcome. On Sept. 13, Kohl’s campaign received another boost in state elections in Bavaria, when the southern state’s ruling Christian Social Union—junior partners in the chancellor’s governing coalition in Bonn—managed to hold on to its majority with a virtually unchanged 52.9 per cent of the vote. In contrast, the SPD vote in Bavaria fell from 30 per cent in 1994 to 28.7 per cent. The environmentalist Greens, the likeliest allies in a future SPD coalition, also dropped, from 6.1 per cent to 5.7 per cent. “A victory,” Kohl boasted in the wake of the Bavarian vote, “with clear implications for the federal political scene.”
Schröder was quick to dismiss the Bavarian trends, claiming the results were “what I expected, if not what I had hoped for.” Still, the SPD contender had expended considerable energy in Bavaria, visiting the state more than 20 times in the hope that he could turn the state vote into a launchpad for the national election. The effort came to naught, but it did direct Germans’ attention back towards the east, towards
the five Länder—or states—that make up the old German Democratic Republic.
More than 20 per cent of Germany’s 60.5 million voters reside in the east. Many of them are now facing a plight similar to that confronting jobless engineer Drewitz. The unemployment rate in the five east German states is double that of the west. The Merseburg area, where Drewitz lives, has the highest jobless rate in the country, close to 21 per cent. Out of a total population of 360,000 in the region, 39,000 are out of work. There are, in
addition, 10,000 people engaged in temporary government-sponsored jobs and another 5,000 enrolled in government-funded retraining schemes. “It’s a devastating number,” says Nora George, director of Merseburg’s unemployment office, “particularly when you consider that, under the old Communist regime, virtually everybody had a job here.” Merseburg’s unemployed are victims of the painful industrial restructuring that has followed upon the heels of German reunification. The area, in fact, is a microcosm of
events in the east since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Under the old regime, the region was the site of a vast petrochemical complex. The refineries at nearby Leuna used to employ 31,000 people. The BUNA rubber products facility in the same area once had a workforce of 30,000. Now, the French petrochemical conglomerate Elf Aquitaine runs the Leuna refineries, employing only 2,000. Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical has taken over the BUNA operation, trimming the staff to 2,300. “The petrochemical industry here simply died,” says economist Hilmar Schneider of the locally based Halle Institute for Economic Research. “The old facilities were too inefficient and too hugely overstaffed to compete in a Western economy. Fifty thousand jobs were lost in the process.”
Along with the disappearing jobs have come losses of another, more damaging kind. “People here are feeling defeated, devalued, robbed of their self-esteem,” says Han-Joachim Maaz, a psychotherapist in Halle, 20 km north of Merseburg. He points out that the majority of patients he treats at his church-financed clinic are still suffering the same maladies as those he treated under the old regime—depression, panic attacks, psychosomatic problems. “But the triggers are different now,” he adds. “Before, the symptoms were produced by a need for freedom and space. Now, they are the result of a profound sense of inferiority.”
There has, as well, been political fallout with dangerous implications. The threat comes from both extremes of the spectrum. Last May, the right-wing German Peoples Union won a dramatic 13 per cent of the vote in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where Merseburg is located. The openly xenophobic party, funded and led by Bavarian multimillionaire publisher Gerhard Frey, did it with an aggressive campaign based on such slogans as “German jobs for Germans” and “Foreign bandits out.”
At the same time, there has been a resurgence in support in the east for the Party of Democratic Socialism, consisting almost entirely of aging cadres from the previous ruling Communist party. The PDS won 30 seats in the 656-seat Bundestag in the last federal election in 1994, thanks largely to Germany’s complex voting system, a combination of proportional representation and the traditional first-past-the-post race used in Canada. Each German voter has two ballots, one for a local candidate and the other for a regional party list. “There’s a huge protest vote in the east waiting to happen,” says University of Göttingen political scientist Lösche. “If it swings to the right or, what is more likely, to the left, then both of the mainstream parties are going to have to deal with it.” And that is true for whoever manages to win the German chancellor’s office on Sunday, both the old warrior, Helmut Kohl, and the new face on the scene, Gerhard Schröder.
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