Comment: Blurred horizons will spoil Kohl's blooming landscapes
Kohl has been written off before, but my hunch is that this time the old warhorse won't make it
Friday 25 September 1998
Back in the historic spring of 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl won a crucial election in East Germany by promising to create "Blooming Landscapes" out of the post-communist wasteland. The vote meant that East Germany became just east Germany: the eastern part of a larger Federal Republic. By the time of the last Bundestag election, with old communist factories rusting all around and their workers on the dole, "Blooming Landscapes" had become a bitter joke. I saw people holding up placards at the election rallies of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) saying "Where are the blooming landscapes?" or just "Blooming landscapes!".
But earlier this week, on the hustings at a village on the outskirts of east Berlin, I was amazed to see a poster proclaiming "Vote for Blooming Landscapes - CDU." The left-wing cartoonist Klaus Staeck is not amused. "That was my joke," he protests. But the Christian Democrats seriously reckon they may just be able to persuade enough east German voters that the Blooming Landscapes are here. Their future - and perhaps even ours - hinges on that gamble, because the psephologists tell us that this whole election will be decided in the east.
Travelling around the east over the last few days, I have found large patches of desolation, rust, unemployment, and the accompanying mixture of apathy among the old and often xenophobic anger among the young. But there are also impressive areas of large-scale construction, new jobs, energy and hope. Nowhere else in post-communist Europe does one see such vistas of shining new steel, glass and concrete. Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that west Germany has pumped more than pounds 350bn into the east over the last eight years. But there is massive private investment too.
The mayor of a village in the "bacon belt" of commuter villages around Berlin shows me the newly-made streets and fire station, the freshly renovated school, and a whole estate of new, detached, private houses, built by local people on savings and mortgages. Saxony in the south is booming, under its Christian Democratic "King" Kurt Biedenkopf. Even in the poor northern province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which has more than 17 per cent unemployment, every village I drove through had some new development.
Still more important are the hearts and minds. The cliched picture of the east you get from the British press tends to be that of resignation and resentment. Yet I found people actively and hungrily participating in a democracy that is still new to them. This has been the liveliest campaign here since that vote for unification back in 1990. Walls are plastered with posters. Meetings are packed. The issues? Jobs, of course. Law and order. As everywhere in post-communist Europe, more crime has come with more freedom. Then there is the euro. People who only got the mighty German mark eight years ago are particularly worried about giving it up. So Kohl keeps telling them the euro will be as hard as the German mark. "The French say `The euro speaks German'," I heard him declare in the eastern city of Schwerin. "I have nothing against that."
Will Kohl pull it off? Can he convince just enough east Germans that things really are looking up, so that the present coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats can continue? Well, he has been written off so many times before that you have to hesitate before doing it now. In the last fortnight, the opinion polls have shown him steadily closing the gap on his telegenic but vapid opponent, the "Clintonblair", Gerhard Schroder. The old warhorse, as Kohl describes himself, is in snorting form, charging round the country to exhort carefully-orchestrated mass rallies. The race may even have a photo finish. But my hunch is that this time he just won't make it.
Even in east Germany, where they have only had him as chancellor for eight years, and certainly in west Germany, where they have had him for 16, the simplest argument is the most important: "It's time for a change." I remember a conservative candidate in the last British election telling me that this was the one to which he had no answer. Nor does Kohl. As young people heckled him in Schwerin, he must have felt they were biting the hand that had fed them. One heckler told me: "Yes, in a way we are." But there is a reason for this too.
It is not what the west Germans did, it is how they did it. It is not so much the mistakes made while incorporating east Germany into the western system. It is the arrogance, inflexibility and condescension which so many west Germans have displayed towards their compatriots.
One of the parties to profit from this resentment is the born-again, post-communist Party of Democractic Socialism (PDS), a direct successor to the Communist Party which polluted the east German countryside for 40 years. There is an intricate little irony here, of a kind which we may have to get used to in Britain, the more we introduce complicated electoral systems involving proportional representation.
The alternative government favoured by most Social Democrats is a partnership with the environmentalist Greens, the so-called red-green coalition. However psephologists reckon that a few seats won by the PDS would probably just rob the red-green alliance of the necessary majority.
What would then remain - and in my betting book this is still the likeliest outcome - would be a "grand coalition" of the two big parties: Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. If the latter got more seats, then it would be Chancellor Schroder and a Christian Democrat deputy chancellor. If the Christian Democrats got more seats, then it would be Kohl's annointed heir, Wolfgang Schauble, as chancellor, who as a personality would be much better. (However, although Kohl has declared himself against a grand coalition, one cannot entirely discard the possibility of his staying on after all. At the last election he said he would not stand in this one).
It would be a black joke beyond even the cartoonist if Kohl's Christian Democrats were to remain in power, albeit in a "grand coalition", only thanks to east Germans voting for the post-communists. Blooming or not, those landscapes are still rich in irony.
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