What was so different about #BTW17?

On 24th September 2017, Germans across the country went to the polls to elect their new national parliament. The focus in the weeks and months leading up to the election, was the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and the prospect that they would enter national parliament for the first time. They are currently present in 13 Landtage (state parliaments) and the polls indicated that they would surpass the 5% hurdle required to enter parliament, which they had narrowly missed in 2013. Media coverage on the three governing parties, Angela Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sisters the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU), alongside the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), highlighted the great amount of consensus and agreement between the CDU and SPD, and described the boring nature of their election campaigns. Die Linke (The Left) were snapping at the heels of disappointed SPD supporters. The German Liberals, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), were campaigning hard to re-enter the Bundestag after four years outside it, whilst the party I research, the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), looked like they could do quite badly compared to previous performances, and could potentially fail to meet the 5% hurdle.

When the actual results came through, the polls had mostly got it right: the AfD were the third largest party; the Volksparteien (catch-all parties) CDU/CSU and SPD all had historically-low vote share; and the other small parties had made gains, which was especially the case for the FDP, who had enough votes to bring them back into the Bundestag (Federal Parliament). Talk in the immediate aftermath of the election was of a ‘Zäsur für Deutschland’; in other words, the 2017 Bundestagswahl (federal election) marked a defining moment in the relatively young political history of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Volksparteien had had their vote share eroded by a fragmented party landscape, where the four small parties had achieved the highest cumulative vote share of small parties in post-war German politics.

Once again, election night in unified Germany was another occasion at which to discuss the differences in voting preference between western and eastern Germany. Commentary turned to the apparent distinctions in voting patterns between the alte Bundesländer (federal states which were a part of West Germany) and neue Bundesländer (federal states which were a part of the former East Germany). Apparently, far more people in the neue Bundesländer had voted for the AfD, than in the alte Bundesländer. Once the SPD announced their intention not to coalesce with Merkel again, that left just one coalition constellation possible: CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens, known as a ‘Jamaica’ coalition since the colours of the parties involved are those of the Jamaican flag (black, yellow and green). In contrast to the prevalence of the AfD in eastern states, Jamaika has a majority of votes in most of western Germany, except in areas of Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia and Hesse. So, why is there this apparent difference in voting behaviour between the alte Bundesländer and neue Bundesländer 27 years after unification?

Why is East vs. West still a thing?

East-West comparisons linger in German political culture due to the very recent history of division after the Second World War, represented by the Two Germanies, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Some people argue that the distinctions between eastern and western Germans originate from earlier European power struggles well before the German unification of 1871, dating back to Charlemagne, and possibly even earlier. This is the argument of James Hawes in The Shortest History of Germany, published this year. Hawes argues that two distinct eastern and western identities were not really overcome by original unification in 1871, which is why they continue to endure despite the most recent reunification.

The German reunification of 1990 saw the former East Germany unified with the then West German FRG. Since the FRG continued to exist, albeit in a larger form with the neue Bundesländer of the former East Germany, it was more of an absorption than a unification. At this moment, issues around eastern and western re-alignment, mostly in economic and infrastructural terms, became a central political topic, and one that does not seem to have worn itself out just yet. Once the constitutional unity of the two Germanies had been achieved on 3rd October 1990, the next job was to achieve innere Einheit (inner unity), which includes economic, political and cultural unity.

How do you go about achieving innere Einheit?

When the wall fell, Helmut Kohl, the then chancellor of West Germany, keenly put forward his 10-point-plan for German unity and promised East Germans that as part of a united Germany, they would have ‘blühende Landschaften’ or flourishing landscapes, like those experienced by post-war West Germans. To do this, Kohl imported Modell Deutschland (the model of economic, labour market, and political systems that created a stable and prosperous Bonn Republic) into the East. This was politically successful for Kohl because of the promise of prosperity for the neue Bundesländer, but did not deliver for the eastern Germans who had voted for him.

At the same time, Kohl had to sell unification to existing citizens who had benefited from the same Modell Deutschland in West Germany. The heavily-industrial alte Bundesländer obviously did not want unity at a high cost for them; they had something to lose. So, Modell Deutschland was imported in its entirety, including trade unions and collective wage bargaining processes, into an area with consistently low productivity and a lack of research and innovation. This hindered the potential for neue Bundesländer to undercut their new Bundesrepublik-peers. In fact, the import of trade unions fulfilled Kohl’s political promise and the appearance of higher wages for citizens in the neue Bundesländer, but actually protected the jobs of those in the alte Bundesländer. Following the de-industrialisation of eastern German states post-unification, united Germany had what Roland Czada defined as a ‘split economy’, with different needs for its more and less industrial halves. Therefore, each half of the economy required different politics in an environment where politicians strived to create a political, economic and cultural German unity. A split economy will produce a split electorate, and if elections are won in the more populous west, then protecting the western German economy is equally as crucial as creating growth and jobs in eastern Germany.

The primacy of economic unity

Because of the influence of economic factors in voting behaviour, economic unity is very much the focus of German governments. This can be found in the amount of economic data and analysis conducted in the annual Bericht zum Stand der deutschen Einheit (Report on the Status of German Unity), and which are used to monitor the process of achieving ‘innere Einheit’. Economic detail in the latest edition of these reports demonstrate that the eastern states have still not ‘caught up’ with their western counterparts, but the gap has closed and there are positive developments in economic growth in the region. Since the continued emphasis is to unite the two halves, i.e. bring the neue Bundesländer into line with the alte Bundesländer, there is no acknowledgement of the inherent differences that may exist between eastern and western states, and regional economic differences present across the alte Bundesländer are also ignored through the focus on east/west comparisons. If the different strengths of regions were acknowledged, they could be exploited for economic and social gain. However, this is unlikely to happen due to electoral pressures in the alte Bundesländer, who could stand to lose more than just the solidarity payments they have paid for over 25 years. Indeed, one of the few negotiated points in the Jamaika negotiations – so named due to the parties’ colours - thus far has been to stop these solidarity payments and transfer of wealth from western to eastern regions.

What about cultural unity?

Surely after more than 25 years since unification, people born and raised in the Berlin Republic share the same culture? State broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s project, Generation 25, created a dossier of information on Germans born after the fall of the wall and unification to examine how young Germans from across united Germany perceived their compatriots and their own futures. It was particularly interested to see whether they seemed to have a ‘Mauer im Kopf’ (wall in the mind), and therefore if ‘Ossis’ (East Germans) still had certain presumptions of ‘Wessis’ (West Germans) and vice versa. Just under half of those surveyed by Deutsche Welle still saw differences in mentalities between those in eastern and western Germany.

One reason why this may still be the case, could be due to what Thomas Ahbe called an Ost-Diskurs. His term describes a particular media construction of eastern Germans, which creates a distinct ‘east German’ identity, in turn reinforcing a distinct ‘west German’ identity. If the media world is dominated by western Germany, then a monotonous western German voice is created on eastern German issues, including their history, culture and how successful they have been at using the western Modell Deutschland to rebuild the eastern federal states following unification. This is a voice that eastern Germans themselves do not recognise as a depiction of their reality. For example, the Heute Show, a satirical German current affairs show, recently did a skit where they asked people in Halle, located in the neue Bundesland Saxony-Anhalt, why they voted for the AfD. The footage they used was of people who could not explain why, and the studio audience were laughing at their expense and perceived ignorance. However, I know a Dresden native who finds these depictions frustrating, since he does not identify with them at all, and is sick of people equating Ausländerfeindlichkeit (xenophobia) with his Bundesland Saxony, and, by extension, all of the neue Bundesländer. Such a lack of self-recognisable ‘East German’ media discourse could be assisting the distrust of mainstream media, encapsulated by the term Lügenpresse, and the fake-news phenomenon on social media. This trend of not accepting media discourses on issues is growing across other west liberal democracies, where populism is on the rise and even Merkel has spoken of recognising the ‘losers of globalisation’, amongst them those who are voting AfD, and aims to bring their support back to mainstream political parties

What does this mean for Jamaika?

Jamaika is a new coalition at the federal level. The negotiations are still ongoing and there are multiple points that could create an impasse between the four parties. However, should the parties unite and form a coalition, they will need to navigate the split economy and split electorate, well aware that their main support-base exists in the alte Bundesländer in the west. Like previous governments before them, they will have to work to complete German unity, which is primarily measured as economic unity. This could be made more difficult by the more prominent presence of the AfD in political culture following their entry into the Bundestag. In addition, the national government does not reflect voting patterns in the neue Bundesländer, meaning this may be as potentially unidentifiable as the media can be for eastern Germans. This new government will therefore have a lot to prove that it can listen to and respond to the concerns and needs of those Germans in the neue Bundesländer who do vote differently from their western counterparts. Otherwise, Jamaika could be the sign of increasing the divide between the winners and losers of unification and globalisation. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Jamaika would even last for the whole four years. We will have to wait and see.