It's an eventful autumn in Germany. Besides Oktoberfest, there has been a general election and events commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's demise. The Germans celebrate their national unity today, but do so amid a tenuous economic picture and societal unease.
There are palpable signs of discontent. A record 2.1 million voters decided to forgo casting ballots for the 2009 campaign last month. The Volkspartei or "broad based parties"--namely the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD)--received their lowest voting percentages since the post-WWII period. Germany's minor or "topical" parties--the laissez-faire Free Democrats, the environmentally focused Greens and the neo-Marxist Die Linke ("the Left Party")--were the main beneficiaries of this electoral discontent. All three recorded double digit figures, the first time this has occurred for secondary parties in the nation's legislative history. "We are entering an era of Italian-style politics," a think tank analyst ruefully commented.
There's particular concern about Die Linke across the political spectrum. Its supporters are a combination of former East German Communists, far Leftist factions, and disenchanted Social Democrats. Die Linke's platform can be labeled populist anti-capitalism. "They are a mixed bag of people who want attention, not governmental responsibility," sneered an SPD official. This may be the case, but Die Linke is now the fourth largest party in Germany's Bundestag (Parliament), surpassing the once anti-establishment Greens.
Berlin's election results reflected the inroads Die Linke has made. Their success came at the expense of the Social Democrats who were routed in Germany's largest city. While both parties equally garnered twenty percent of Berlin's total vote, the SPD's share was fourteen percent less from its prior 2005 election returns. The outcome was particularly profound at the local level. Heretofore Berlin had been considered a Social Democratic stronghold, controlling nine of the city's twelve Bundestag districts. The SPD lost them all in the electoral aftermath, the net recipients being Die Linke and to a lesser extent the Green Party.
Similarly striking was the city's overall voting behavior. Berlin's communities chose their preferences as if the Wall still existed. Where people lived became a determining factor in casting ballots. While West Berlin predominantly chose either Volkspartei, East Berlin became a Die Linke enclave. Any bridgeheads that the Social Democrats had previously established in eastern neighborhoods evaporated. Die Linke won twice as many votes as the SPD in these environs (34.1% to 18.2% respectively); the opposite result occurred in western vicinities (SPD 22%, Die Linke 11%).
Does Berlin's vote mirror prevailing sentiments about German reunification? Despite the basic consensus that East Germany's integration has been a costly yet worthy endeavor, structural disparities appear. German taxpayers have spent approximately $1.3 trillion since 1991 on unification with mixed results. Unemployment in the eastern laenders (states) is nearly twice as high as their Western counterparts. (Berlin's 14% jobless rate is the nation's highest.) Wages are considerably higher in West Germany, causing internal migration from the eastern half of the nation to already fiscally burdened laender governments elsewhere. Between 1990 and 2006, an estimated 1.3 million East Germans have moved westwards to seek a more prosperous life. The environs that have been discarded consequently suffer "brain drain" and related problems. It is a situation that will likely intensify given Germany's troublesome economy.
What is it that makes Die Linke succeed if a significant number of East Germans are going to the West? Its Communist roots represent a society where surveillance and shortages thrived. The party's ranks are laden with former Stasi officials, East Germany's notorious secret police. Instead of being detested for what it symbolizes, Die Linke has attained a formidable presence in German politics.
This doesn't necessarily imply that Communism is making a comeback. When closely examined, Die Linke's allure has as much to do with identity versus ideological politics. East Germany's post-Soviet legacy markedly differs from other Warsaw Pact societies. Split from its cultural bearings by World War II's outcome, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany's formal title) lacked a national character. Soviet control prohibited any notions about developing a distinct society for the East Germans. The Nazi era was a festering wound that prevented any rehabilitation save Marxist solidarity.
Reunification hasn't resolved this issue. Forty odd years of separation produced respective histories that won't easily blend. There's a sentiment among Germans that the integration process went too quickly, disregarding moods and sensitivities. "It's ironic, but many Easterners resent having been rescued by their Western brethren," a retired government official observed. "Unlike their then-Communist neighbors, there was no at the barricade moment for them in 1989. Call it revolutionary cleansing, but they were spared the trials and excitement of forging their own future."
There are subtle examples of cultural assertion, the most noticeable being Berlin's Ampellmann (little traffic light man). The Ampellmann is one of the few remaining vestiges of East Berlin's disappearing life, a flickering icon with a wide brim hat installed at pedestrian crossings. When Berlin unified, Ampellmann was to be replaced by the West's more generic figure. Protests ensued, and Ampellmann was allowed to stay within his old urban boundaries. The mascot eventually became a fixture throughout the rest of Berlin, the kitschy representative of a forlorn past.
Perhaps Die Linke is more in the mold of Canada's Parti Quebecois than revamped Communists. It's essentially a populist party with a cultural subtext. Since populism is prone to factional splits, will Die Linke become a short-lived phenomenon or profoundly transform German politics?
Gerald Robbins is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.