Opinion: Fear and Loathing in Bavaria
If some Bavarians still wondered why the rest of Germany doesn't much like them, smooth-talking Eddie Stoiber probably cleared up any remaining confusion last week.
In spectacularly offensive fashion, Stoiber first attacked the allegedly dangerous influence of eastern German voters on the election outcome. The failed conservative candidate for chancellor in 2002 said at a campaign rally he couldn't abide the possibility that scruffy, "frustrated" easterners would end up deciding the election -- as they did to his detriment last time around.
Stoiber then promptly followed up that gaffe by lamenting at another gathering that other Germans lacked the intelligence of his fellow Bavarians. Apparently, he was referring to the kind of intelligence that's kept his party in power in the southern conservative stronghold for the past 60 years. But the monotony of the democratic process in Bavaria is a topic for another day.
Stoiber's comments, understandably, unleashed a nationwide storm of outrage. Leaders across the political spectrum were united in their rejection of his assertion that easterners, or Ossis, as they're disparagingly known in Germany, were unable to make an informed decision once inside the voting booth on September 18.
Officials from his own Christian Social Union (CSU) party tried to explain Stoiber had been misunderstood and that the "frustrated" he had referred to were the leaders of a successful new far-left party -- imaginatively named the Left Party -- and not easterners at large.
A few people might buy that line, but clear damage had been done to the conservatives' clumsy campaign. Struggling with her own gaffes, Angela Merkel's presence on the campaign trail has been less than steady of late. And now Stoiber's comments have been dropped into the middle of an already contentious debate about the rift between eastern and western Germany with all the subtlety of a hydrogen bomb.
Earlier this month, easterners were insulted by remarks from Brandenburg's conservative interior minister, Jörg Schönbohm. He posited the bizarre theory that somehow the legacy of East Germany's brutal totalitarian regime was responsible for a clearly mentally disturbed woman who repeatedly committed infanticide.
Merkel, aware that offending a large section of the electorate isn't the best campaign strategy, has gone into full damage-control mode. But her credibility with many easterners may already be stretched beyond repair. Despite her years growing up in the east, many there feel she betrayed her Ossi roots to have a successful Wessi career with the Christian Democrats (CDU).
Helping the wrong people
Of course, the most irksome thing about the repeated missteps by the conservatives is not that it imperils the CDU's own share of the vote, but rather that comment's like Stoiber's are a sure-fire way to push disgruntled easterners into the arms of the anti-reform Left Party.
Formed from an alliance between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) – which itself was born from the ashes of the East German communist party – and some old-school western trade unionists, the Left Party looks set to become a pan-German socialist success. For weeks, opinion polls have pointed to the likelihood that the party will become Germany's third-largest political party after the CDU and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD).
With its populist rhetoric, wacky economics and dangerously naïve attitudes toward foreign policy, it is certainly not in Germany's interest to have the Left Party do well in the upcoming vote. But it is still seen by the majority of Germans as the party with easterners' interests most at heart.
Reinforcing bad perceptions
Stoiber's little bout of Ossi-bashing is only bound to reinforce the perception that many westerns consider easterners second-class citizens and help nurture an unhealthy chip on the shoulders of many in the region.
As for his lament that those "frustrated" easterners could decide the election, well, I've got news for you Ed. The frustrated decide every election. And with unemployment in the formerly communist states double that in the west, eastern Germans have plenty of reasons to be frustrated these days. They will remain so until German politicians are able to tackle the problems that threaten to turn the region into a Teutonic Mezzogiorno.
Besides, Stoiber should show a little more gratitude towards easterners. Bavaria, with its famously touted mix of "laptops and lederhosen," might be doing just splendidly these days, but many of its top companies such as Allianz and Siemens only came to the state after they fled Berlin after World War II.If a good chunk of Germany hadn't been locked up behind the Iron Curtain for 40 years, Bavaria might still be the farming backwater that it once was.