Vote in Eastern Germany Signals Return to the Left

Disillusioned by unfulfilled promises, voters in Brandenburg State reject Kohl's party

AFTER suffering damage during World War II, compounded by subsequent decades of Communist-era neglect, the quaint, two-story buildings along Brandenburger Street here are receiving some long-overdue attention.

Three-plus years after Germany's unification, renovation projects are continuing along the street - a pedestrian mall in the heart of Potsdam, currently the capital of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, and once the home of Prussian kings.

Fresh paint, along with new windows and lighting, have given many of the buildings a modern look, seemingly confirming that the former East Germany is well on its way to economic prosperity.

But the new look is deceiving, says Wolf Sperling, the owner of a modernized stationary store on Brandenburger Street. ``This area is nothing more than a Potemkin village,'' he says.

To prove his point, Mr. Sperling walks out the back door of his shop and into the courtyard. The scene there is one of complete decay: windows are smashed and walls are crumbling.

``The front may look good,'' he says, ``but in the back, it looks like after a war.''

The comments of Mr. Sperling are a reflection of the widespread disillusionment at the pace and scope of economic revival across eastern Germany.

Three years ago, amid unification euphoria, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the East would quickly be transformed into a ``blossoming landscape.'' But what eastern Germans - often identified by westerners by the mildly derisive term Ossies - notice most these days are rising crime and unemployment that runs at about 15 percent in eastern Germany.

Additionally, infrastructure in many eastern cities and towns remains in need of overhaul. And resentment is building among easterners over the perceived indifference to their problems expressed by western Germans.

Local elections in Brandenburg on Sunday were the first chance since the unification year of 1990 for eastern Germans to express their feelings about government. And they dealt a severe rebuke to Chancellor Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in what may be a preview of things to come in federal elections next year.

Results show the opposition Social Democrats - with roughly 34 percent of the vote - to be the clear winners in the local elections, in which Brandenburg's 1.9 million voters decided mayoral and council races in four cities and 1,700 towns.

The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, vied for second place with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the heir of the old Communist Party that built the Berlin Wall and ran East Germany with an iron fist.

Though the CDU had a slightly higher share, both it and the PDS gained about 21 percent of the vote on Sunday. In 1990 elections, the Christian Democrats won 32 percent, and the PDS gained 16.5 percent.

Other parties split the remaining share. In Potsdam, Rolf Kutzmutz, a neo-Communist who admits he spied for the East German secret police, emerged as the likely winner of the mayoral race. The elections also showed little support for neo-Nazi candidates.

Udo Schumacher, a semi-employed window cleaner, bought into Kohl's vision for the East and voted for the CDU in 1990. But in Sunday's vote he switched allegiance to the PDS.

``Personally, unification has led to financial misery for me. I earn about the same as before but have to pay 300 percent more for my apartment,'' he says. ``I need to renovate my apartment, but I don't have the money to do so.

``Kohl didn't tell the truth when he said people wouldn't suffer. It's worse now than it was before.''

Along with disillusionment, there is widespread disdain for western German politicians in the East. And a recent scandal in the neighboring eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt sharply increased the mood of resentment.

In the affair, allegations of financial impropriety forced the resignation of the CDU-led government of Saxony-Anhalt. The chief figure in the scandal was former regional Prime Minister Werner Munch, a westerner who was transplanted to Saxony-Anhalt with the intention of providing the managerial expertise that easterners supposedly lacked.

``The mainstream parties aren't in touch with reality here,'' says Dirk, a student. ``Democracy should be the power of the people, but we don't have that. The big bosses rule in their own interest and the common people have no voice.''

The prevailing mood is not just causing people to desert the Christian Democrats, it is also prompting a rise in political apathy. Voter turnout for Sunday's elections dropped to 61 percent from 70 percent in 1990.

``My vote won't really make a difference. I don't expect much to change, because there aren't large differences among the programs of the large parties,'' says Wolf Pradel, a computer programmer.

``Apathy is a problem,'' Mr. Pradel adds. ``Living conditions are bad, and I have many more problems to worry about than politics. Besides, the government doesn't seem capable of solving our problems.''

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