Alienated East Germans Cold to Kohl's Reelection

Voters in former communist areas may swing balance in Sunday's vote.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It might turn out to be the bitterest irony of Helmut Kohl's political career. His crowning achievement, German unification, could lose him next Sunday's parliamentary elections.

In the most closely fought German vote since World War II, complex electoral calculations have given the new eastern states decisive weight in the choice of the country's next government. And in the ravaged landscapes of the east, where the jobless rate is nearly 20 percent, Mr. Kohl is today a deeply unpopular man.

"Why should I be grateful to Kohl?" asked Klaus Morhin, a former railway worker forced into early retirement, as he sat in the main square of Hellersdorf, a suburb of east Berlin.

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"It's not as if anyone gave anything to East Germany. They destroyed all our businesses and our factories," he says.

Eight years ago, when Kohl led his conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to victory in the first all-German elections after the Berlin Wall came down, he campaigned here on a promise of "blossoming landscapes."

In the euphoria of unification and an outpouring of gratitude for the chancellor's role in tearing down the iron curtain, he won 39 percent of the eastern vote.

Blossoms unnoticed

And some landscapes have blossomed: Houses and apartments have been built or refurbished, shops have opened, roads have been resurfaced, the telephone system is one of the newest in Europe, and pockets of modernity shine in almost every town and city.

But the CDU stands at only 25 percent of the eastern vote in recent polls.

Somehow "people deny reality," complains Gunter Nooke, CDU candidate in a Berlin constituency. "They don't realize how well off they are and I am fed up with the constant whining."

The trouble is, Mr. Nooke concedes, "people aren't voting according to their interests, but according to their mood."

And in Hellersdorf, the mood is doubtful.

The town square itself is a newly built "blossoming landscape" - an attractive ensemble of shopping precincts, offices, and a multiplex cinema designed to give the surrounding wilderness of high-rise apartment blocks some sort of heart.

But it is not enough for Andreas and Birgit Tollkhn, a young couple watching their two small children playing in the square at a Harvest Festival fair the other day.

Fearful of future

The Tollkhns both have jobs, they have built their own home, they seem textbook beneficiaries of unification with every reason to thank Kohl for his efforts.

But they are fearful of the future; Andreas plans to vote for Gerhard Schrder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), while Birgit supports the ex-Communist Democratic Socialist Party (PDS).

"From a family point of view, I know we would never have been able to build our own house in East Germany," Birgit explained.

"But from a mother's point of view," she said, "for the security of my children's future, I would rather go back to when the [Berlin] Wall was up."

"People can recognize with their minds that their living standards have improved, but at the same time their hearts, their mentalities, are not satisfied," says Andre Bri, the PDS campaign manager. "They have forgotten the bad things in their old lives and they have got used to things like democracy and the freedom to travel.

"But they are still shaped by the values of East Germany - social justice, social security, and social equality," he adds. "They have not been able to adjust to West German values in eight years."

If this is true generally, it is even more true among the ranks of eastern Germany's army of unemployed.

East's antiquated industry

Unification laid bare just how antiquated East German industry was. Uncompetitive on world markets, the economy suffered a double whammy when its traditional export markets in the former Soviet Union disappeared. Effectively de-industrialized, the East German economy collapsed almost overnight, and hundreds of thousands of jobs went with it.

The German government has poured vast amounts of money into the five eastern states over the past eight years - as much as $550 billion according to Kohl's boasts in campaign speeches. But as Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University notes, "the government has been successful in bringing money, but it has failed to create jobs."

Bitterness in Bitterfeld

Nowhere is this clearer than in the town of Bitterfeld, 80 miles south of Berlin. Once, Bitterfeld was the center of the East German chemical industry: It enjoyed the sad distinction of being the most poisonously polluted town in Europe, but 33,000 people worked there.

Today, the chemical complex spreads across acre after acre of abandoned, weed-strewn, smoke-blackened hulks, dirty red-brick ruins with broken windows fit only for destruction. Still, this post-industrial wasteland is brightened in spots by bright new chemical factories, such as Bayer's brand new, pastel-painted plants surrounded by grassy lawns and flower beds.

The government and private investors have pumped $2.5 billion into the regeneration of Bitterfeld's chemical park, according to Linden Blue, the park's American managing director and the man in charge of attracting new business. But the town's industry employs only 10,000 people today, less than a third of its former population.

Too few jobs

The very modernity of the new plants going up, and their efficiency, spells doom for those who remain jobless. Even if the park attracts full capacity, Mr. Blue estimates, it will not create more than another 3,500 jobs.

"The community has learned that production facilities themselves don't have that many jobs," he says. "They cannot expect the factories to give them work."

Only in the long run, he hopes, if the park acts as a magnet, will small companies servicing the chemical industry spring up and begin to hire workers.

In the face of eastern Germany's fundamental economic weakness it is hard to see how any political party could do much to alleviate unemployment in the foreseeable future, warns Prof. Everhard Holtmann, who teaches politics at Martin Luther University in Halle.

"The tools to improve the economic situation are here, and they are being used," he says. "I don't see any additional tools available."

That pessimism seems widely shared in Bitterfeld, where few people put much faith in any of the parties to solve their problems.

"It won't make much difference whoever wins," says Gunter Triepisch, an unemployed bulldozer driver. "So I suppose you might as well vote for the SPD. It's the lesser of two evils."

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