WORLD

A proxy election

West German politicians battle in the East

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 26 1990
WORLD

A proxy election

West German politicians battle in the East

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 26 1990

A proxy election

WORLD

THE GERMANIES

West German politicians battle in the East

On the sixth floor of a gloomy brick building in East Berlin, campaign workers for East Germany’s new Social Democratic Party (SDP) were bustling about last week—much like political volunteers anywhere. But amidst the commotion were the physical signs that East Germany's first free elections, to be held on March 18, will be a vote like no other. Almost everything in the offices, including telephones, typewriters, computers and campaign leaflets, was brought in by West German Social Democrats anxious to ensure that what they call their “sister party” in the East scores well. And alongside the eager East Germans, for whom democracy is a novel experience, were slick professional operatives from West German SDP headquarters in Bonn, assigned to teach the Easterners how to run a smooth campaign. “It’s not so easy,” one young West German, who identified himself only as Frank, remarked late one evening. “We bring in the leaflets, but they don’t get out and distribute them. What can you do?” Other East German political parties are also fuelling their campaigns with generous Western aid. Indeed, so much money is flowing across the border that some East Germans complain that their election is being turned into little more than a proxy war between rival West German parties. Many of the idealistic activists who were in the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, which forced East Germany’s Communist rulers last fall to open the country’s borders and promise free elections, have been swept aside. For many East Germans, the March 18 election has become just a prelude to a much bigger change: their country’s impending reunification with West Germany. And the powerful influence of Western parties on the leading political forces in the East has been an uncomfortable reminder that unity is likely to resemble less a partnership than an outright takeover of East Germany by the West.

After the Social Democrats helped to set up their sister party in East Germany, West Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, engineered a coalition of three conservative groups in the East, under the banner of the Alliance for Germany, to oppose the SDP. And critics charge that Kohl, who met with East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow in Bonn last week, is forcing the pace of unification partly to increase the CDU’s chances in West German elections next December. Meanwhile, the centrist Free Democratic Party in East Germany formed a partnership with the West German Free Democrats. Independent groups, includ-

ing the pro-democracy movement New Forum, also say they intend to run candidates.

Leaders of the parties allied with Western forces make no secret of the fact that they rely heavily on financing from West Germany. None would say how much money they are receiving,

although most claimed that their rivals are accepting vast sums. They maintain that they need the money to compete with the former ruling Socialist Unity (Communist) Party, which has been renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and the parties that co-operated with it. Those groups have offices and organizations throughout East Germany. “This was a closed society for 40 years, and we had no chance to develop independent organizations,” said Martin Gutzeit, the East German SDP’s general secretary. “We need the help, but it doesn’t mean we cannot make our own decisions.” At the same time, Gutzeit acknowledged that the eagerness of West German Social Democrats to help their Eastern counterparts is due largely to the expected impact of East Germany’s election on politics in the West. Said Gutzeit: “German politics for the next decade will be strongly shaped by the outcome here.”

The flood of money and political experts from the West has evidently angered other East German activists. The invasion is particularly galling for such people as Hans-Jürgen Fischbeck, a physicist who was involved for 20 years

in peace groups that the former Communist regime persecuted. Last September, Fischbeck helped to form a pro-democracy group called Democracy Now, which helped lead the grassroots revolt that toppled the old order. But last week, Fischbeck complained that people like him have been pushed aside. “We were the pioneers in the democracy movement,” he said. “Now, we have to fight to stop from being swallowed up by groups like the SDP and the CDU that have sold themselves to get power.”

The influx of Western money has also allowed the former Communists in the PDS to portray themselves as underdogs. Although they ran East Germany almost unchallenged for 40 years, they now complain that they are one of the few groups not receiving any help from outside. Its membership has fallen to

890,000 from about two million before last October—and is still declining. Party leaders admit that there is widespread public anger against the old Socialist Unity Party, but argue that the PDS is a genuinely new force with new leaders. And to underscore their newfound modesty, they maintain that they do not expect—or even want—to win on March 18. “We want to be a constructive opposition,” Lothar Bisky, a member of the party’s ruling presidium, said last week. “It wouldn’t be healthy if we won.”

With less than a month to go before the election, the most likely outcome is a coalition government led by the Social Democrats. SDP support was put at 54 per cent in a recent poll, compared with 12 per cent for the PDS, 11 per cent for the Alliance for Germany and four per cent for New Forum. But whatever the result, the new government that is formed after the vote may have little to do but negotiate the terms of what will in all likelihood amount to a takeover of East Germany by the West.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in East Berlin