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Germany

Promises for the East

Chancellor Schröder and his challenger Edmund Stoiber have unveiled plans to boost the economy in eastern Germany. But to voters their proposals sound strikingly similar.

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For Gerhard Schröder (right) and his challenger Edmund Stoiber, Germany's eastern states are a prime battlefield

It's an election year in Germany and politicians are outdoing themselves in promising voters the moon.

This past weekend, both of the main contenders in the upcoming election unveiled their concepts to boost the economy in eastern Germany. Both had a bouquet of pleasant sounding promises for the voters in Germany's east.

The East plays an important role in Germany's September 22nd election. In the neue Länder, as West Germans call the states that joined the federal republic in reunification, the percentage of undecided voters is much higher than in the West.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his main opponent Edmund Stoiber both know that the votes of the 16 million people living in what was once communist East Germany can determine the election outcome. And both know that people in western Germany will judge them by whether they're able to bring the East forward.

Economic divide

Economic prosperity in the East is still lagging behind the West. According to Germany's KfW bank, the state financial institution for reconstruction in the East, productivity in the neue Länder is only 69 percent of that in the West.

Since reunification in 1990, thousands of companies have had to close down due to the harsher competition, and many easterners have lost their jobs. Between 1989 and 1999, more than one million East Germans moved to the West in search of work.

Billions of deutschmarks and euro have been invested into modernizing the infrastructure in the East. But that still hasn't helped create enough jobs. Unemployment in the East is more than twice as high as in the West: 19.2 percent compared to 8.3 percent.

Similar ideas

The ideas chancellor Schröder and his counterpart Edmund Stoiber have presented to boost the economy in the East show striking similarities.

Both of them want to start special economic aid programs for Germany's East. Both agree that the country has only come half way in bringing the East up to par with the West.

Government plans

Schröder und Müntefering

Gerhard Schröder (right) and SPD General Secretary Franz Müntefering

Schröder promised special efforts to modernize roads and railways in the five eastern German federal states. He also pledged more money for researchers working at universities in the East. And he promised civil servants in the East that they would be earning just as much as their western counterparts by 2007.

Schröder hopes to find money to finance the aid package once the German economy picks up. And he said he is confident that that will be soon.

He has let the European Union know that he expects it to continue giving regional aid for eastern Germany, even after the EU program is due to run out in 2004.

Opposition similarity

Edmund Stoiber

Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber

Edmund Stoiber, the chancellor's conservative challenger, also unveiled an aid program for the East this past weekend.

Just like Schröder, Stoiber advocates improving the infrastructure in the East. He wants to encourage investment, give start-ups a boost and raise the salaries of civil servants. Stoiber's eastern aid package - like Schröder's - also includes plans to develop universities and research institutions in the East.

Just like the government, the opposition is counting on an economic upswing to generate money for the neue Länder.

But in addition, Edmund Stoiber wants to finance his economic aid package by restructuring the federal budget and through privatization. Stoiber thinks government shares in companies like Deutsche Telekom could be sold to raise money for the East.

This has drawn harsh criticism from the German Economic Minister Hans Eichel, who has said that because Deutsche Telekom shares have fallen to record lows selling now will not raise much money.

Eichel also warned against increasing the federal debt in an effort to improve the standard of living in the East. Future generations shouldn't be burdened with having to pay the increasing public debt.

Skeptical public

After the proposals both candidates offered over the weekend, the country's newspapers on Monday were all but impressed. Many editorialists branded the proposals as electioneering.

The Recklinghäuser Zeitung in Marl editorialized that the electorate will measure Schröder and Stoiber by how they stand by their promises. Both will have to be careful not to disappoint the voters.

And the Frankfurter Rundschau opined that since both contenders for the job have developed very similar ideas, everything will boil down to a question of credibility. This is where Edmund Stoiber's falls short and where Gerhard Schröder is trying to cash in, the newspaper said.

"But all of this is so obvious that there's reason enough to remain skeptical," the Rundschau reported.

The Ostsee Zeitung in the eastern German city of Rostock drew yet another comparison between Schröder and Stoiber, lamenting that both of them tend to develop political ideas for the East rather than with it.

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