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German Elections Reveal, and Deepen, a New East-West Divide

FORST, Germany — On the eastern edge of former Communist Germany, Dr. Thomas Jähn sees his patients five days a week. Some come to talk about their own health, others about the health of German democracy.

About the local post office that just closed down. About the train line to Berlin that was promised but never built. About the coal production that is being phased out nearby and the thousands of jobs going with it.

And about the lingering inequality between East and West three decades after the Berlin Wall fell.

“They ask me, ‘What’s the point of voting when no one listens?’ ” Dr. Jähn said before two closely watched eastern state elections this Sunday.

Dr. Jähn, a family doctor in the small town of Forst, has been listening. Three months ago, he was elected to the town council for the far-right Alternative for Germany, alongside other respected figures in the community: a fireman, a plumber, a businessman and a soccer coach.

That, in a nutshell, says Mayor Simone Taubenek, an independent, helps explain why the far right is so strong here: “When the local doctor votes far right, it gives them legitimacy.”

The far right may be flatlining, even borderline imploding, in Western Germany, trailing far behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and garnering less than half the support of the resurgent liberal Greens.

But here, in the former Communist East, the Alternative for Germany, known by its German abbreviation AfD, is competing to be No. 1. A broad-based political force embedded at the grass-roots level, the party has become Exhibit A for a Germany that is more divided between East and West than at any point since reunification.

That is one reason Sunday’s state elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, coming 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have taken on an outsized symbolic importance.

“It’s a moment to take stock of reunification — and of the strength of the far right,” said Marcus Böick, a historian specialized in recent East German history.

The two things have become inextricably linked, he said.

The AfD has both tapped into the East-West division and exacerbated it by actively styling itself as an Eastern identity party. “The East Rises Up!” reads one of its campaign posters. “Complete the revolution,” another urges, a reference to the 1989 protests that brought down Communism and ushered in democracy and capitalism.

“East German identity is part of the AfD’s identity,” said Norbert Kleinwächter, a national lawmaker for the AfD, who was campaigning in Forst one recent evening. “There are Westerners and Easterners — their experiences are very different.”

Such messaging plays well at a time when voters in the former East have started telling pollsters that they identify as “East German,” something few did even under Communism. Over 70 percent of West Germans simply feel “German,” a recent survey by the Allensbach institute showed. In the East, that was true of only 44 percent.

In Brandenburg and Saxony, the two states that vote this weekend, polls give the AfD up to 25 percent support. On Sunday, when voters elect a new regional legislature, the party could come first in one or both regions.

In Forst, a once prosperous textile hub on the Polish border that lost thousands of jobs and half its population after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the AfD is already No. 1.

One in three voters among the 18,500 inhabitants support the far right. The party has the biggest group in the town council.

Ask Ulrich Mäbert, a local businessman, why he votes for the AfD after years of casting his ballot for Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, her social democratic coalition partner and, once, for the Greens, and he points to acres of undeveloped land on the town’s edge.

“This is our industrial area,” he said bitterly, his arm sweeping across the empty fields. The investment and jobs successive politicians promised never materialized, he said.

In downtown Forst, shuttered factories and smoke stacks still dot the sky line. Trees grow out of abandoned villas. A graffitied slogan sums up the mood: “Nobody can help.”

Mr. Mäbert remembers the euphoria 30 years ago, when Ms. Merkel’s one-time mentor and predecessor, Helmut Kohl, promised Easterners an economic miracle in a unified Germany.

“In those days the election posters promised us ‘Blooming landscapes,’ ” Mr. Mäbert recalled. “And we all believed it.”

No one believes it now, he said.

Things have gradually improved since the 1990s, when in the space of a few years the entire textile industry collapsed and unemployment surged.

Today government money has improved roads and public buildings in the town. Forst has a recently renovated swimming pool with a 10-meter diving board. Half of the town’s inhabitants live in houses of their own.

Now that the government has decided to phase out coal production, billions more will flow in to help compensate for the job losses.

But, as Carola Friebel, a local shop owner, put it: “People don’t want money, they want a future.”

Ms. Friebel does not vote for the AfD but she has friends who do. Her stationery shop is one of the few remaining retailers. “Tourists sometimes come in and ask me where the town center is,” Ms. Friebel said. “I tell them, ‘You’re standing right in the middle of it.’”

But you would not know.

The shoe shop closed, so did a number of boutiques, a supermarket and then, in June, the post office. A proud 19th-century building, it gained particular significance under Communism, when older residents recall going there to place phone calls or pick up packages from relatives in the West.

“It’s all gone,” said Ms. Friebel.

So have her children, who like many others have grown up and moved away to find work.

Thirty-five percent of the population is over 60, said Ms. Taubenek, the mayor. “I’ve lost two generations,” she said.

But economics is only one reason the people of Forst are rebelling against traditional parties on the left and right.

“There is a sense that things are decided over your head, that you have no say in anything,” said Diana Sonntag, a restaurant owner and mother of six.

“We in the East are familiar with that,” she said. “We’ve been there before.”

Under Communism, the party called the shots, she said. Now the market does. “I’ve come to realize that everything they taught us about capitalism all those years ago is true,” Ms. Sonntag said. “Politics is just for show. Money rules.”

The disruption brought by capitalism is only the latest way the people of Forst have had their lives upended over the past century.

Nestled on the banks of the Neisse River, the town was shot to rubble by the advancing Russian Army in 1945.

Under Communism, local businesses were expropriated. Then, with the arrival of capitalism, unemployment surged and overnight, people’s résumés became meaningless.

Margrid Schmidt, a 76-year-old retired nursery teacher who attended an AfD rally last week, remembers being told after reunification that her degree no longer qualified her to work in a nursery.

She had to retrain. “One hundred hours to learn how to do the job I had done for 20 years,” Ms. Schmidt said.

The sense of injustice runs deep. And with the arrival of over a million migrants in Germany in 2015, it deepened again.

Although Forst has few migrants, many complain that the government is treating foreigners more generously than struggling Germans.

“My parents were around 50 when the wall fell,” said Mario Fitzke, a local car mechanic. “They had such high hopes and were bitterly disappointed and humiliated. And then you see what the refugees get — all the things that we didn’t get. That makes you angry.”

“No one should be surprised at the results of the AfD,” he said.

Jörg Rakete, a social democrat who is mayor of a nearby village, said traditional parties needed to show humility. “We are the ones who left this vacuum.”

In his village, four in 10 people vote for the AfD. Calling them extremists is not helpful, he said. “On the state and national level they are extremists,” he said. “On the local level, they are often citizens who no longer feel represented.”

Source: NYT > World News

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