LIANE HANSEN, host:
Although Pope Benedict held the stage in Cologne this weekend, politicians are also commanding attention in Germany, where elections will be held next month, one year earlier than scheduled. The opposition Christian Democrats are expected to do well, but the race is tightening, in large part because of the growing popularity of a new political party rooted in East Germany. And that party's success is casting light on the East-West division that still underlies German politics 15 years after reunification. NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
This year's federal elections in Germany are turning out to be anything but normal. In July, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder deliberately lost a vote of no-confidence in Parliament to force early elections. At first, the opposition CDU, led by Angela Merkel, was expected to win easily. But then a series of missteps by the CDU and the growing influence of a new left party led to a drop in the polls. Recent comments by an opposition leader, Edmund Stoiber, about the new party further damaged the CDU's prospects.
Mr. EDMUND STOIBER: (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: `We cannot let the fate of Germany be determined by the frustrated in this country,' he said. While Stoiber said his comment was aimed at the leaders of the left party, East Germans took it as a slap in the face. Most supporters of the left party are in the East, and it was formed by disenchanted members of Schroeder's SPD and members of the PDS, the reformed Communist Party of East Germany.
(Soundbite from campaign event)
MARTIN: Hundreds of left party supporters gathered recently in Potsdam, about an hour outside of Berlin, for a summer campaign event complete with beer stands and marching bands. Seventy-year-old Klaus Eurag(ph) clutches his granddaughter with one hand and a plastic cup filled with beer in the other. He says Stoiber's comment revealed the true colors of the CDU.
Mr. KLAUS EURAG: (Through Translator) For the big CDU people, we're like stupid people here in the East. What they say is their real opinion, and now, finally, they have spoken their true thoughts in a public way.
MARTIN: The left party is campaigning on issues close to the hearts of East Germans: social welfare, unemployment and pensions. They've managed to lure voters from the critical bloc of undecided Easterners that the major parties need to secure a majority in Parliament. But while the SPD and the CDU are trying to woo voters in the East, their efforts haven't done much to break a general sense of political apathy. Ingrid Muller is a retiree from Potsdam and a loyal member of the left party. But even she doesn't have high hopes for what it can accomplish.
Ms. INGRID MULLER (Member, Left Party): (Through Translator) The pensions will be cut anyway. That's for sure. But I hope that at least the party can try to avoid some damage. Anything more than that would be asking too much.
MARTIN: `Muller's comments are typical,' says Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at Dresden University of Technology. He says East Germans had high hopes for better jobs, higher salaries and more political influence after the wall came down.
Professor WERNER PATZELT (Dresden University of Technology): This has been the general political climate in East Germany ever since reunification: the feeling that a new system is a wrong system; that the German economic system doesn't work; that the German social system is ...(unintelligible) system and that if reforms would be necessary, they should lead into a socialist direction.
MARTIN: Many East Germans are disillusioned with all the political options in Germany right now. Hans Hartwig Lauw(ph) is a public school teacher from Brandenburg. He says he's not optimistic about the outcome of the upcoming election.
Mr. HANS HARTWIG LAUW (Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: `No, not really,' he says. `I don't see any party with the power to make real change. The way it is now life is good for one group of society, but it's not a group I belong to or anyone I know.'
Leaders of the left party say they will consider it a victory if they can win 8 percent of the vote in September. That would give them enough seats in Parliament to influence policies on unemployment and social welfare, whoever forms the next government. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR NEWS.