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COTTBUS, Germany – The Berlin Wall may have collapsed more than three decades ago, but when it comes to voting, East and West Germany still feel like two different countries.

The Greens, who have made significant strides across much of western Germany in recent years, are struggling to reach double digits in most of the five states that make up eastern Germany: Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony -Anhalt and Thuringia. .

Meanwhile, for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and to a lesser extent these days, the Left party, the region is a lifeline preventing them from falling into irrelevance at the national level.

And while the East may not be the largest voting prize for the different parties (it has 12.5 million people, only about 15 percent of the country’s total population, slightly less than the state of Bavaria), it can be vitally important to their fortunes: The region has helped push one party or another to the limit in the past, meaning they ignore it at their own risk.

“The East is a seismograph for national developments in Germany,” writes Cerstin Gammelin, deputy director of the Berlin office of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in her new book on East German politics, “The Underestimated.”

“It does not decide who becomes chancellor. But hardly anyone can become chancellor without him. “

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On a sunny weekday in early September, Robert Habeck, the Greens’ co-leader, came to this city of 100,000 in eastern Brandenburg to defend his party. Although his candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, is the one living in eastern Germany, representing Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, in the Bundestag, it is Habeck who has spent the most time traveling the region and working to reinforce the reputation of your party there. .

During his speech, and in a subsequent conversation with POLITICO, Habeck pointed out the challenges his party faces in convincing people here: “When you live in a region that has not only had positive experiences with the terms ‘transformation’ or ‘change’ , where many people have had to rethink things not only economically but ideologically, so that is a difficult starting point for us, “he said. “It is true that, in the past, my party has not always done everything well on this front.”

Why does the East vote differently

Although differences in voting between West and East Germany have existed since reunification, those contrasts have attracted more attention in the years since the rise of anti-system parties such as the Dresden-based anti-Islamic movement PEGIDA in 2014 and, a few years ago. after. , the AfD.

Forsa’s polls broken down by region earlier this year provide a window into how different constituencies are. At the time, at the end of May, the Greens were 26 percent in the west and only 12 percent in the east. The AfD, by contrast, was the second strongest force in the East at 21 percent, but received only 7 percent in the West. (The left is also notably stronger in the East (13 percent) than in the West (4 percent).

While there is no single explanation for the party landscape in eastern Germany, it is generally understood to be linked to events both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when popular demonstrations helped overthrow the communist-led German Democratic Republic.

Some, like the German government’s special commissioner for the region, Marco Wanderwitz, have (controversially) attributed the strength of the AfD here to the fact that former GDR citizens were “partially socialized by the dictatorship in such a way that they have not reached democracy. ”

But others have said that it is more about the experiences of East Germans after the fall of the Wall, not before.

Manès Weisskircher, a Dresden-based political scientist at the University of Oslo, said there are “widespread feelings of social marginalization” that contribute to the notion among East Germans that they are “second-class citizens” in their own country.

There are legitimate reasons for this frustration and resentment. The East still lags behind the West economically, with lower wages, lower pensions, and fewer economic opportunities. Much of the region’s industry and many of its citizens left after 1990, seeking better opportunities elsewhere; meanwhile, the companies that remained or came to the region have often been owned by West Germans.

And nationally, East Germans remain underrepresented in almost every aspect of public life, from politics to the media to business (although Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, is an exception. remarkable).

Weisskircher noted that there are “objective structural differences” stemming from the region’s incarnation in the Cold War as East Germany, as well as what has happened since reunification in 1990, that inform political attitudes here.

As a result, voters in general view a large number of issues differently and tend to feel less indebted to any political party, which helps make electoral trends here so volatile.

“Anti-immigrant attitudes are more widespread in the East. The economic insecurity is greater, ”Weisskircher told POLITICO. “And anti-system attitudes and dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy are particularly prevalent in eastern Germany, related to dissatisfaction with the representation of East Germans in politics and society in general.”

That’s part of what makes it tough terrain for the Greens, whose leaders run on a platform for fundamental change. Petra Weißflog, one of the leaders of the Greens in Cottbus, has experienced this first-hand during her decades as a politician here. Although much at Cottbus has changed for the better since 1990, he explained, “there is still this sense of anguish and insecurity” that contributes to the “strong skepticism” that some harbor for the Greens.

“This idea that we have to change things fundamentally scares people,” he added. “And as a result, they don’t see the hope that is also related to change.”

Bastion of AfD

Interestingly, the AfD leaders’ assessment of the situation in the East is not necessarily that different from that of Habeck or Weißflog. They simply believe that they are who voters trust to change their current situation, and the polls largely corroborate that view.

“People in the East are more sensitive … they had to go through a lot of shocks, such as unemployment and poverty,” Matthias Hofmann, director of the AfD in Burgstädt, told POLITICIAN, before a recent party rally there. “And because of that, people know which party really defends their interests.”

Hofmann’s party has benefited from that message, especially in Saxony, where the AfD won 27.5 percent in the 2019 state elections and is currently in first place ahead of Sunday’s vote.

The East German electorate, relatively small as it is, may not move the needle massively for any party at the national level, but it has the potential to be influential in an election where margins matter.

Even the leaders of conservative Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats have experienced that in the past: in 1998, disappointment with then-CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the East helped generate strong support for the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder, who later became the next chancellor.

For Habeck’s Greens, the East can determine whether the party can become the kind of broad-based movement they aspire to be. He told POLITICO that he sees East Germany as “incredibly important” for the Greens because he believes the party can and should be able to perform in “difficult environments.”

“That we can win 25 percent in Freiburg, of course, is fine,” he said, referring to a stronghold for the party in southwestern Germany. “But if it really is the case that the party is transforming into one that seeks to represent the whole of society, then we have to win in Cottbus and rural areas as well.”

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