Thirty years after reunification and two months before the federal election, German politics is still divided into two parts.
In the so-called “new federal states”, the Greens do worse than in the rest of Germany.
The right-wing populist party AfD was able to get a particularly large number of votes there.
In the run-up to the federal election in 2021, the federal states in the east are increasingly looking to shape Germany's political future.
This article is available for the first time in German - it was first published on July 7, 2021 by the magazine "Foreign Policy".
Dessau-Rosslau - On the eve of the state elections in Saxony-Anhalt * in June, Marco Wanderwitz, Federal Government Commissioner for the new federal states, was asked about the strong support for the right-wing extremist AfD in the region. CDU politician Wanderwitz saw the cause of the AfD's successes in the east in East Germany's authoritarian past. In his view, only a small proportion of these voters are “potentially recoverable” for established parties such as the CDU. "We are dealing with people who are partially socialized by dictatorship in a way that they have not reached democracy even after 30 years", Wanderwitz told the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
The outrage was not long in coming. Many people in the region immediately criticized Wanderwitz's comments as uninformed and condescending and saw them as only the latest in a long series of degradation of East German voters in a country where they are often not sufficiently valued and misunderstood by the government or their fellow citizens in the West feel.
The uproar that followed Wanderwitz's words shows once again how much space the topic of East Germany occupies in the political discussion on a pan-German level and how tense it is often discussed.
More than thirty years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.
But the five eastern German federal states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, which are still often referred to as the “new federal states”, still display voting behavior that is clearly different from that of the western German states Different federal states.
This could have a significant impact on the general election in September.
Federal Parliament election 2021 in Germany: Effects of the "new federal states"
With the rise of the Islam-critical PEGIDA movement, which is mainly based in Saxony, in 2014 and the last federal election in 2017, when the East made a significant contribution to the arrival of the AfD * in the Bundestag, voting behavior in the eastern federal states has increasingly come into focus . From a political point of view, East Germany is now often viewed as a problem child.
“[In 1989 the East Germans demonstrated] for free elections, for freedom of speech, for freedom of travel.
... In other words: The people [in East Germany] fought for their own right to democracy, ”said Cerstin Gammelin, deputy editor-in-chief of the Berlin parliamentary office of the
“But when the Wall fell, all West German structures were simply exported to the East.
Suddenly the East Germans were just the losers. "
"That is really a paradox, because after all they had shown great courage and brought the wall down," adds Gammelin, who has written a book about the role of the East in German politics that will be published shortly.
"Yet they are always portrayed as the losers."
Although it is difficult for the AfD to win over voters in West Germany, it has long since established itself as a significant force in the East.
It is the second-strongest party in all of the five new federal states and in some state elections even garnered more than a quarter of the votes.
In addition, the AfD politicians in the east - such as Björn Höcke from Thuringia and the ex-party leader in Brandenburg, Andreas Kalbitz - are generally much more radical than their colleagues in the west.
Greens with Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock do poorly in eastern Germany
In contrast, the Greens - who have consistently held second place in the polls for the federal elections for a long time and will very likely be part of the next government coalition or possibly even lead it - do relatively poorly in the east. The party has problems here with convincing voters outside of a handful of more left-wing cities. The Left *, which in part emerged from the communist SED, is doing much more strongly in the east than in the west, but has lost its attractiveness and momentum in recent years due to the rise of the AfD.
In a Forsa survey in June, these differences became clear once again. According to the survey, 26 percent of respondents in West Germany said they wanted to vote for the Greens. In East Germany, on the other hand, it was only 12 percent. The AfD is now the second strongest party in the east with 21 percent of the vote. In the west, on the other hand, with just 7 percent, it only has a third of its voting shares in the east. (The only party that achieved equally high approval ratings in East and West Germany is the CDU. In the West, Angela Merkel's party has 25 percent and in the East 23 percent.)
"Even 30 years after reunification, there are still differences," says Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at Forsa.
“Voters in East and West Germany are still fundamentally different from each other.” The three state elections this year make it clear how voting behavior differs and how the corona pandemic may have accentuated these differences a little more.
The state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate took place in mid-March.
State elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate: Greens increased, AfD with heavy losses
In both western German states, the AfD suffered heavy losses, while the Greens gained in each case. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the AfD came to only 8.3 percent, a minus of 4.3 percent compared to the state elections in 2016. Meanwhile, the Greens climbed by 4 points to 9.3 percent. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens, who have been in government there since 2011, gained 2.3 points to 32.6 percent. The AfD, on the other hand, lost almost a third of its electorate here (from 15.1 percent to only 9.7 percent).
In Saxony-Anhalt, on the other hand, where the election took place on June 6th, the AfD has a home game.
Even after support for the party declined somewhat in the wake of the pandemic, it achieved a result of 20.8 percent in the state election.
Although this is slightly less than in the 2016 election, it is more than twice as much as their polls for the federal election.
How can these differences be explained?
Although Wanderwitz sees the reasons for the nature of the political landscape in East Germany in the experiences of voters in the GDR, most of the people I spoke to locate the cause in the events that happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall and not before.
“The above-average success of the AfD in the 'new countries' finds its almost complete explanation in the experiences that [the people in East Germany] gained after 1990,” writes the sociologist Wolfgang Engler in
Who we are: the experience, East German be
"[N] icht in recourse to their supposedly authoritarian, leader-oriented GDR habitus."
After the fall of the wall: economically, federal states lag behind western Germany
There are many reasons for East Germans to be frustrated. The region lags behind the west economically, wages are significantly lower and unemployment is significantly higher. Much of the industry is in West German or foreign ownership, and many industrial companies have migrated in the years after the fall of the Wall. In addition, the region is still severely underrepresented in almost all areas of public life, from corporate boardrooms to the media to top positions in politics.
In combination with the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016, this is an ideal breeding ground for a party like the AfD. Even if only very few refugees were finally accommodated in East Germany, according to Gammelin, “there was great concern that the influx of refugees would mean that people would lose the livelihoods that they had rebuilt for themselves. Many of these people voted for the AfD because it promised them that they would not allow it. "
The AfD deliberately plays with this resentment and appeals, implicitly and explicitly, to their East German identity in their campaign for voters in the region.
When state elections were held in three of the five East German federal states in 2019, the leading AfD politicians started with the slogan “Complete the turnaround”, and the slogan was read on the election posters, based on the protests against the SED regime in 1989 "We are the people".
AfD election campaign event in Dessau-Roßlau: tradition of the demonstrators from 1989
This strategy was seen again at an election campaign event in Dessau-Roßlau this spring.
In a speech to about a hundred (mostly maskless) supporters in one of the central squares of the city, AfD top politicians presented their party as the sole champion for individual rights in the tradition of the demonstrators of 1989.
"You are all helping to make history," said AfD member of the Bundestag Andreas Mrosek to the crowd.
"Later on you will be able to say to your children and grandchildren: 'I helped bring about a real political turnaround.'" (With the term
he naturally alluded to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.)
Martin Reichert, also a member of the Bundestag, spoke of a "political earthquake" back in 2016 when the party first moved into the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt. "This result gave many people in Germany courage and new strength," said Reichert. This year, in which both state and federal elections are taking place, "it is about nothing less than the preservation of our civil liberties and the preservation of democracy in Germany as we have got to know it in recent years and decades."
Antje Hermenau, a former member of the Bundestag for the Greens who left the party in 2015, believes that there is a very clear reason for the East-West differences in voting behavior.
"It's very simple: in East Germany you have a very sober view of reality, in West Germany you dream," says Hermenau.
(She counts her former party among those who do not have both feet on the ground of reality.)
Rise of the AfD in East Germany - party strong across all age groups
Hermenau has become something of an explanation for the rise of the AfD in East Germany: In her book
Views from Central Europe: How Saxony See the World, which was
published in 2019,
she argues that East Germans continue to feel that they belong more to Eastern Europe than to Western Europe, and this is so influence their attitudes towards politics. The East Germans went through a tough transition phase in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and are mostly anxious to preserve and protect the life they built for themselves. In doing so, they are generally very skeptical of those in power and the media.
The best proof that Wanderwitz 'statements about the authoritarian socialization of East Germans are wrong, according to Hermenau, is the fact that the AfD is strong in all age groups - even among young people who have not even experienced the GDR themselves.
In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD won 17 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds last month, just behind the CDU.
Among the 25 to 34 year olds, it was even in first place with 28 percent.
"It is not that only old people have not fully accepted democracy, that is nonsense," Hermenau continued.
"Young people who have never lived in [East Germany] and were not socialized there also vote for the AfD."
In addition, voters in East Germany do not have long-term ties to a particular party, which favors volatile voting behavior (and helped the AfD to develop such a strong position there).
“There is no traditional loyalty to a particular party in East Germany.
The people there change parties whenever they feel it is necessary, ”said Hermenau.
"Many voters consider themselves consumers: They choose tactically to support or prevent certain political developments."
Bundestag election in September: the role of East Germany in shaping the country's political future
With the upcoming general election in September, the role of East Germany in shaping the country's political future is back in the headlines. Although the new federal states only make up a fraction of the German electorate - only 12.5 million of Germany's 83.2 million inhabitants live in the east - they have a disproportionately large direct and indirect influence on the political debate.
Should the race for possible government coalitions turn out to be very close, a shift of just a few percentage points could be decisive for individual parties. In addition, the influence of the East is not only evident in the ballot box. Last year's debacle over informal cooperation with the AfD in Thuringia ultimately led to the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel's hand-picked successor to the CDU chairmanship. This is another clear example of the strong role that East Germany plays in shaping the German discourse.
"In terms of numbers, one can say that there are fewer eligible voters in the east than in North Rhine-Westphalia and that the East German voters therefore in principle have no real influence," said Gammelin.
“But I don't find that convincing.
If the federal election is narrow in the end, the votes of smaller groups of voters can be a decisive factor. "
by Emily Schultheis
by Emily Schultheis
lives as a freelance journalist in Berlin, where she writes about elections in Europe and the rise of populism.
This article was first published in English on July 7, 2021 in the magazine “ForeignPolicy.com” - as part of a cooperation, a translation is now also available to
This article was first published in English on July 7, 2021 in the magazine “ForeignPolicy.com” - as part of a cooperation, a translation is now also
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