German election exposes lingering East-West political divide
Although the East may not be the biggest prize for the different parties, it can be crucially important to their fortunes.
COTTBUS, Germany — The Berlin Wall may have come down more than three decades ago, but when it comes to voting, Germany’s East and West still feel like two different countries.
The Greens, who’ve made significant gains across much of western Germany in recent years, struggle to break into double digits across 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 keeping them from sliding into irrelevance on the national level.
And although the East may not be the biggest vote prize for the different parties — it has 12.5 million people, only about 15 percent of the country’s total population, a little less than the state of Bavaria — it can be crucially important to their fortunes: The region has helped put one party or the other over the edge in the past, meaning they ignore it at their peril.
“The East is a seismograph for national developments in Germany,” writes Cerstin Gammelin, the deputy chief of Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Berlin bureau, in her new book on eastern German politics, “The Underestimated.”
“It doesn’t decide who becomes chancellor. But almost no one can become chancellor without it.”
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One sunny weekday in early September, Robert Habeck, the Greens’ co-leader, came to this city of 100,000 in eastern Brandenburg to make the case for his party. Although their chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, is the one who lives in eastern Germany — she represents Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, in the Bundestag — it’s Habeck who has spent the most time traveling around the region and working to bolster his party’s reputation there.
During his speech, and in a conversation with POLITICO afterward, Habeck noted the challenges his party faces 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, then that’s a difficult starting point for us,” he said. “Admittedly, in the past, my party hasn’t always done everything right on this front.”
Why the East votes differently
Although differences in voting between western and eastern Germany have existed since reunification, those contrasts have drawn more attention in the years since the rise of anti-establishment parties such as the Dresden-based anti-Islam movement PEGIDA in 2014 and, a few years later, the AfD.
Polling from Forsa broken down by region earlier this year provides a window into just how different the electorates are. At the time, in late May, the Greens were at 26 percent in the West and just 12 percent in the East. The AfD, by contrast, was the second-strongest force in the East with 21 percent, but received just 7 percent in the West. (The Left, too, is noticeably stronger in the East—13 percent—than in the West—4 percent.)
While there’s no single explanation for the party landscape in eastern Germany, it is broadly understood as linked to events both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when popular demonstrations helped bring down 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 the former GDR citizens were “partially socialized by dictatorship in such a way that they have not reached democracy.”
But others have said it’s more about eastern Germans’ experiences after the fall of the Wall, not before.
Manès Weisskircher, a Dresden-based political scientist at the University of Oslo, said there are “widespread sentiments of societal marginalization” that help contribute to the notion among eastern Germans that they’re “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 into the region have often been owned by western Germans.
And on the national level, eastern Germans remain underrepresented in nearly all aspects of public life, from politics to the media to business (although Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, is a notable exception).
Weisskircher noted there are “objective structural differences” stemming from the region’s Cold War incarnation as East Germany, as well as what’s happened since reunification in 1990, that inform political attitudes here.
As a result, voters broadly see a whole host of issues differently — and tend to feel less beholden to any one political party, which helps make electoral trends here so volatile.
“Anti-immigration attitudes are more widespread in the East. Economic insecurity is higher,” Weisskirche told POLITICO. “And anti-establishment attitudes and dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy are both particularly prevalent in eastern Germany, related to a dissatisfaction with the representation of eastern Germans in politics and broader society.”
That’s part of what makes it difficult terrain for the Greens, whose leaders run on a platform of fundamental change. Petra Weißflog, one of the Greens’ leaders in Cottbus, has experienced this firsthand over her decades as a politician here. Although much in Cottbus has changed for the better since 1990, she explained, “there’s still this sense of angst and insecurity” that contributes to the “strong skepticism” some harbor for the Greens.
“This idea that we need to fundamentally change things scares people,” she added. “And as a result they don’t see the hope that is also connected with change.”
Interestingly, AfD leaders’ assessment of the situation in the East isn’t necessarily so different from Habeck’s or Weißflog’s. They just believe they’re the ones voters trust to change their current situation — and polling largely bears out that view.
“People in the East are more sensitive … they had to go through many disruptions, like unemployment and poverty,” Matthias Hofmann, head of the AfD in Burgstädt, told POLITICO before a recent party rally there. “And because of that, the people know which party really stands up for their interests.”
Hofmann’s party has benefited from that message especially in Saxony, where the AfD won 27.5 percent in the 2019 state-level elections and is currently polling in first place ahead of Sunday’s vote.
The eastern German electorate, relatively small as it is, may not move the needle massively for any one party at the national level, but it has the potential to be influential in an election where margins matter.
Even leaders of the 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 lead to strong support for the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder, who went on to become the next chancellor.
For Habeck’s Greens, the East may determine whether the party can become the kind of broad-based movement they aspire to be. He told POLITICO he sees eastern 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, sure, that’s fine,” he said, referring to a stronghold for the party in southwestern Germany. “But if it’s really the case that the party is transforming into one that seeks to represent the entirety of society, then we need to win also in Cottbus and rural areas.”