WORLD

A vote for unity

East Germans choose conservative parties

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 2 1990
WORLD

A vote for unity

East Germans choose conservative parties

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 2 1990

In the overheated atmosphere of the Ahorn Blatt discotheque in East Berlin last week, East German conservatives gathered to celebrate their election victory. They swilled Western beer, danced to a Western rock band pounding out Western music— and congratulated each other on successfully steering their country towards a speedy union with West Germany. And as East Germany’s first fully free election day slid rapidly towards the morning after, 50-year-old television repairman Helmut Erhard leaned blearily across a table strewn with bottles and explained why his party, the Christian Democratic Union, had emerged as the strongest force. “It was the CDU that made the economic miracle in the West,” Erhard said. “Now, we need a miracle in the East, and the voters knew who could make it happen.”

In awarding a striking victory to the Christian Democrats and their allies in the conservative Alliance for Germany coalition, East Germany’s novice voters defied the predictions of nearly all analysts and pollsters. Although the experts had foreseen a close contest between the Alliance and its main rival, the Social Democratic Party, the conservative forces captured 48.1 per cent of the vote and 192 seats in East Germany’s 400-member Volkskammer (parliament). The Social Democrats were humiliated with only 21.8 per cent and 88 seats, far below their expected strength and only slightly ahead of the discredited former Communist party, which polled a surprisingly high 16.3 per cent with 66 seats. The outcome was a resounding personal triumph for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the CDU’s leader in the West, who had put his party’s money and his own prestige behind the Alliance. And it set East Germany firmly on the fast track to unification with the West.

The first major steps towards unification, which Kohl said should be completed by the end of 1992, are expected within a few weeks. Lothar de Maizière—the leader of East Germany’s victorious CDU who is expected to head the coalition government that will emerge from postelection negotiations among the parties—told reporters that the remains of the Berlin Wall and other frontier barriers will be dismantled “as quickly as possible.” More importantly, Alliance leaders said that they were determined to introduce a common currency in both Germanys by July 1.

By quickly replacing the weak East German mark with West Germany’s powerful deutsche mark, leaders of both countries hope to persuade East Germans to stop leaving for the West. Kohl himself appealed to Easterners on the day after the vote, saying, “Please stay at home, unpack your suitcases and help to build up the country together.” The prospect of swift union with the West immediately slowed the exodus from the East: only 1,156 East Germans registered to settle in the West on March 20, compared with 2,275 one week earlier. The restoration of democracy in the East also prompted the West German government to announce that it will soon end the special benefits extended to those moving West. On July 1, it will start to close reception centres used to house East German refugees and scrap most payments—currently about $140 in cash and cheap loans of up to $2,800 to buy furniture—to people from the East.

But amid the signs of hope, it was also plain that East Germany’s transition to parliamentary democracy would not be entirely smooth. All last week, leaders of the Alliance parties (the CDU, the right-wing German Social Union and a small conservative group called Democratic Awakening) tried to negotiate a so-called grand coalition with other groups. They quickly reached agreement on key points with leaders of a liberal group that won 21 parliamentary seats. But they needed support from the Social Democrats to achieve the two-thirds majority in parliament necessary to amend East Germany’s constitution, paving the way for unity under an article in West Germany's basic law that would allow the East simply to join the Western Federal Republic. The Social Democrats at first refused to enter a coalition with the Alliance because they regarded the German Social Union as too right wing. But, by week’s end, they had softened their stand and entered talks aimed at forming a government by the time the new parliament is scheduled to meet on March 30.

Complicating the process were allegations that many of the new members of parliament may have acted as informers for East Germany’s now-disbanded secret police, known as the Stasi. Rainer Eppelmann, the leader of Democratic Awakening, maintained that about 40 of the 400 newly elected members had had links to the Stasi. His predecessor as leader, Wolfgang Schnur, was forced to resign a week earlier when it was revealed that he had once been an informer for the secret police, which, under the old Communist regime, employed 85,000 people and maintained a network of more than 100,000 part-time informers. And last Thursday, the head of a commission investigating the Stasi files said that he had received information that CDU leader de Maizière had himself been a Stasi informer. De Maizière flatly denied the charge.

But although the process of forming a new government will be slow and complicated, there was no doubt about the meaning of the verdict delivered by East Germany’s 11.5 million voters—an astonishing 93 per cent of the eligible electorate. Whether they favored the outcome or not, politicians and ordinary voters were almost unanimous that East Germans had simply chosen the party most likely to achieve unity with the least possible delay. Many saw it as a pragmatic vote for the party in power in Bonn rather than as an ideological swing to the right. “Voters chose the ones who could act the quickest,” said Wolfgang Stutzer, director of West Berlin’s Institute for Inter-European Studies. “If the Social Democrats had been in power in the West and in a position to act fast, it might well have gone their way.”

Others put it more strongly. In Leipzig, the southern city that was the focus of pro-democracy protests last fall, the conservative Alliance for Germany won just over half the vote. Siegfried Arndt, a 75-year-old retired Protestant pastor, maintained that the experts had underestimated the anger of voters over decades of political repression and economic stagnation. “For 40 years, we were betrayed in the name of socialism,” he said. “Now, people don’t want anything to do with parties that are even close to socialism. It was a boiling pot, and it just exploded.” Leipzig’s acting mayor, Hans Grünewald, added: “People don’t want social experiments anymore. They want results.”

In addition to their desire for quick change, many voters were influenced by the Western parties’ past record on unification. In particular, said Arndt, many Leipzig residents remembered that the Social Democrats in West Germany pursued a “two Germanys” policy for many years, attempting to build good relations with East German authorities and dismissing unity as a distant dream. Said Arndt: “People didn’t forget or forgive this.”

Ironically, the vote went strongly against the pioneering reform groups that touched off the pro-democracy movement last September. Most of them were members of a coalition called Alliance 90, which included New Forum and Democracy Now. The leaders of those two groups risked their freedom during the unrest by protesting while the Communist regime maintained its grip on power. But since then, they had lost touch with the mass of East Germans, who were impatient with the activists’ arguments in favor of what they called a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, and their warnings against selling out East Germany’s social values to the free-market society of the West. On election day, Alliance 90 won only 2.9 per cent of the vote and 12 seats in parliament.

Some Alliance 90 leaders took comfort even from that result. Konrad Weiss, a film-maker and leader of Democracy Now, argued, “We are the only real winners because we made it possible to have free elections.” Bernd Albani, a pastor at the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin, where pro-democracy activists gathered last fall, admitted that he was disappointed that Alliance 90 took so few votes. But he said that he and his friends are accustomed to being society’s conscience no matter what party holds power. “We always expect to be in opposition,” said Albani. “It’s our natural place.”

Other left-wing intellectuals who expressed skepticism about the rush to unity acknowledged frankly that they had little to offer ordinary East Germans desperate to improve their lives. Wolf Biermann, a dissident songwriter who was expelled from East Germany in 1976, told a West German television interviewer: “People won’t stand any more for these animal experiments on living human beings. If I come and say that we shouldn’t just take over the West German system and make their mistakes, then a working-class woman from a factory will tell me, ‘Biermann, you’re an intellectual who’s writing songs, but I stand at my machine all day and I get nothing for it. I just want to live a bit better.’ I can’t give that woman any lectures.”

Some leftists, however, congratulated themselves that East Berlin itself had held out against the conservative tide. In contrast to the south, where the conservative forces scored as high as 60 per cent in some regions, Berlin’s voters gave the Social Democrats their biggest score (35 per cent) and voted 30 per cent for the revamped Communist party, now called the Party of Democratic Socialism. On election night, groups of young people spilled out of the party’s massive headquarters chanting “Berlin is still red!” The vote in part reflected the capital’s high proportion of onetime Communists in the civil service, but it also continued Berlin’s long socialist tradition dating back to the 19th century. The right-wing vote in the south, in tum, was partly a backlash against Communist policies that favored Berlin’s development at the expense of such cities as Leipzig.

East Germany’s new government will have to deal with such regional rivalries as well as the more pressing issues of unification. It is likely to be handicapped by the inexperience of its leaders and the overwhelming power of West Germany. CDU leader de Maizière, who will almost certainly become the new prime minister, is a soft-spoken, 50-year-old lawyer who first trained as a viola player until an arm injury ended his musical career in the mid-1970s. He is married, has three daughters, and associates describe him as shy: when he went to the discotheque where the CDU was holding its victory party on election night, he spent most of his time in the kitchen with a few aides rather than mixing with supporters.

De Maizière’s CDU-East relied heavily on financial support from Kohl’s Christian Democrats in the West, and the chancellor himself was the star of the Eastern party’s election campaign. The Eastern wing’s dependence on its Western sister party was underscored last week when de Maizière and other Alliance for Germany leaders announced that a West Berlin economist and longtime Kohl supporter, Elmar Pieroth, will be the economics minister in East Germany’s new government. Pieroth’s first task will be to work out with Bonn how the deutsche mark will be introduced as East Germany’s currency. Kohl pledged a few days before the election that Eastern marks will be exchanged for deutsche marks at a rate of one-for-one in order to protect the savings of East Germans. But Bonn officials have said that Easterners will be allowed to change their money only in gradual increments to minimize the impact on inflation in the West.

For Kohl, the unexpected victory of his junior allies in the East was an important boost in his campaign for re-election in December. The Social Democrats had been so confident of success that their nominee for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, scheduled the formal announcement of his candidacy for the day after the East German election, clearly expecting that he would be able to bask in the glory of an Eastern triumph. As it turned out, his timing could scarcely have been worse. Still, Kohl’s successful campaign raised expectations in the East that may be hard to meet. In Bitterfeld, a dingy and notoriously polluted industrial town near Leipzig, pharmacist Klaus Marciniak reflected that local opinion could quickly shift against the chancellor and his party. “Our hopes have been raised very high,” he said. “But we are very critical of politicians now.” As they effectively annex East Germany, Bonn’s leaders may well find that they have acquired an unexpectedly volatile population.