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15 years after unification: Germany's divided political landscape

An analysis by Dr. Manuela Glaab

03.10.2005 · Forschungsgruppe Deutschland

15 years ago German unification came to happen as big a surprise – to Germany as well as to the rest of the world. Shortly before the wall came down in 1989 only three percent of West Germans had believed that they would ever experience this. Today East Germans as well as West Germans share the conviction that unification was a good thing to happen. According to a very recent nationwide survey only 15 percent in the East and 8 percent in the West are unhappy with unification. Consistently, only a small minority wishes to revise history: 6 percent would prefer two separate German states. At the same time, however, 57 percent have the feeling that differences between East and West Germans are predominating still.

And in fact, despite the unanimous appreciation of unification, a gap between the two parts of the country continues to exist. Despite all efforts – and another 156 billions will be spent until the end of 2019 to support the development in the new states – objective living conditions still differ. The income of an East German has nearly doubled since 1991 but is still only 85 percent of an income in the West. Without no doubt the biggest problem, yet, is the unemployment rate which in 2004 averaged 18,4 percent in East Germany. This entails huge problems such as the migration of the younger population towards the West.

But we should not forget the subjective dimension also. Opinion polls indicate that only 30 percent of the East Germans believe that within the next ten years living conditions will be equal in both parts of the country. 43 Percent think it will take at least 20 years or longer. 23 percent don’t believe in an adjustment at all. At the same time there is a tendency of West Germans thinking that enough was done to support East Germany, while East Germans tend to believe that much more could be done.

When Germany was divided, mutual perceptions used to be asymmetric, too. From the Western perspective the GDR was seen as a negative reference system to its own democratic and economic order – a perception which helped to re-assure West German self-consciousness. Only limited attention was paid, yet, to the other part of Germany. Only when outstanding events were happening – such as the visit of Erich Honecker, the former Head of Government of the GDR, in the Federal Republic in 1987 – more public attention was drawn to the neighbour state. In principle, West Germans always declared that they continue to believe in one German nation, however, without worrying much about it.

East Germans on the other hand saw the Federal Republic as a reference model, as an inaccessible land of opportunities. This helps to explain why a majority of East Germans did not follow the vision of a "third way", of a democratic but independent GDR, which was favoured by many activists of the velvet revolution in 1989. Instead most people wanted to participate at once in the freedom and wealth which was since long reality in the Western part of Germany. The slogan "We are the people" – which in the beginning was the message of the famous Monday demonstrations – therefore quickly was replaced by the call for unification: "We are one people".

At the first glance the 2005 federal election in Germany reflects the persisting divergence between East and West Germany. The PDS – the successor party of former GDR's communist SED which was recently re-labelled as "The Left" – won more than 25 percent of the votes in East Germany while it received 4.9 percent in the West. In effect we face a different political landscape in both parts of the country. Over the past fifteen years the PDS successfully established as a regional party which is a major force in the East but plays only a marginal role in the West. In the eyes of large parts of the electorate the PDS is the only party which really represents East German interests. At the same time PDS supporters are most frustrated: 61 percent say they are not satisfied with their lives. Another reason for its success is the strength of its local party organisation which gives people the feeling that PDS representatives are available and take care of them.

At a second glance, however, one has to acknowledge that the German party system as a whole underwent a profound structural change in the last decade. A turning point was reached in the midst of the nineties when the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) lost their structural majority. After the election of 1994 Chancellor Helmut Kohl was able to continue the coalition with the Free Democrats for another term but was defeated in 1998. Since the midst of the eighties the German party system had been formed by two party groups, with a steadfast core of either Christian Democrats or Social Democrats using a small party to form centrist coalition governments. The first built a coalition with the Free Democrats from 1982 until 1998. The latter succeeded to form a new coalition majority with the Greens until recently. This constellation seems to belong to the past.

At this point nobody knows whether the new party formation on the extreme left will successfully establish as a parliamentary faction. Yet, it seems strong enough to urge the major parties to look for new majorities. This is the underlying strategic question which points far beyond the current coalition debate. And this explains the fascination of the so-called “Jamaica-coalition” (Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Green Party signified by their parties’ colors black, yellow and green) which dominated, for a few days at least, the headlines. For obvious reasons, programmatic as well as cultural differences, it was not possible to unite the relevant parties in the short run. Given the fact that none of the major parties can rely on a structural majority any longer new majorities have to be organized. In a sense, 15 years after unification Germany has become a "normal" European democracy with a heterogeneous party system.

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