Germany unified, but Easterners are dissatisfied
BERLIN — Nearly 15 years since masses of demonstrators swelled the streets of East Germany, toppling the Berlin Wall and uniting Germany, a new wave of protests is rolling through eastern towns and cities from Berlin to the Baltic Sea, lending a voice to the widespread disillusionment with reunification.
Monday in the eastern city of Leipzig, a focal point for antigovernment protests that led to the collapse of the communist German Democratic Republic, an antireform demonstration is expected to draw numbers not seen since the fall of 1989.
The catalyst bringing tens of thousands of east Germans into the streets each Monday - reminiscent of the "Monday Demonstrations" that shook the foundations of the former German Democratic Republic - is a package of government economic reforms that cut unemployment and welfare benefits and reduce medical care provided by the state healthcare system. But the demonstrations are about more than anger over unpopular legislation. They are also expressing the widespread disappointment in the east that followed the euphoria of unification, showing how Germany remains a divided country.
"People in the east are less satisfied with democracy than in the west. Even in the west there is a strong affinity with the social welfare state, but in the east there is a greater desire for a kind of socialist democracy. This difference explains the dissatisfaction in the east," says Bernhard Wessels, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
The latest public opinion polls confirm that there is a wide gap between east and west Germans. A poll released Friday by the Election Research Group in Mannheim shows that 44 percent of west Germans say the government's reforms are wrong compared with 58 percent in the east. In the west, 49 percent of those polled agree with the reforms, compared to just 35 percent of easterners.
While the protests against the reforms are making the headlines, Matthias Jung, an analyst from the Mannheim research group, says the survey shows public support for the government's reforms is increasing. The government reforms are giving people in the east a way to focus their sense of being left behind by unification.
"The people attending the Monday Demonstrations are expressing their frustration with the lack of progress rebuilding the east," says Mr. Jung. "Our surveys show that overall public support for the government's reforms is about 50-50."
The demonstrations in the east have put Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government under pressure, driving his Social Democratic Party (SPD) to all-time lows in public opinion polls ahead of a key election in the state of Brandenburg on September 19.
The latest survey by the polling agency Infratest Dimap shows that large numbers of frustrated Brandenburg voters could turn to the former communists. The poll predicts that the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) could become the largest party in the state legislature, possibly producing the first PDS state governor since unification.
Some trade unionists and members of the SPD's left wing, especially the party's former leader Oskar Lafontaine, are even talking of creating a new left-wing party, disappointed with Mr. Schröder's centrist policies.
Ending his self-imposed political exile since he resigned unexpectedly as finance minister in 1999, Lafontaine will be the main speaker at this week's demonstration in Leipzig. Lafontaine, who is closely allied with the antiglobalization movement, attacks Schröder's economic reforms for slashing benefits for the poor while cutting income taxes for the wealthy.
The protests against the government's reforms have also given rise to speculation that the coalition of SPD and the environmentalist Greens could collapse before the next national election in 2006 or that the government could cave in and withdraw its reforms, a move that would have an immediate negative impact on the economy.
But Ralph Solveen, a senior economist at Commerzbank, is more concerned about the price of oil. He doesn't expect the government to accelerate reforms, but is encouraged by Schröder's insistence that the coalition will not make an about-face.
"We expect neither a withdrawal of the reforms nor an early end of the red-green coalition," he said in a note to investors.
There are also signs that the protests could be spreading as local organizers, trade unionists, and members of the PDS gathered in Berlin this weekend to try to forge the various Monday Demonstrations into a national day of protest.
Leading SPD politicians warned that the with the east-west war of words over the government reforms, the western states are growing tired of bearing such a high financial burden for their seemingly impatient brethren in the east. Since unification in 1990, west German taxpayers have transferred some 90 billion euros ($75 billion) a year to help rebuild the east after more than four decades of communism.