Culture shock for Bonn bureaucrats braced for Berlin culture shock

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The Independent Online
ENCIRCLED BY wine bars, posh restaurants and the hottest nightspot in town, the regulars of the Mariola pub sip their beer as they reminisce about the good old days. About the time when beer cost 51 pfennigs, when rents were cheap and everyone had a job. When the Wall stood.

"Before, I had money but could not travel," said the landlord, Ralf Jackel. "Now I can travel but have no money."

Lots of other things have changed too. The run-down apartment blocks across the tramline are being beautifully restored. The biggest, the vibrant interlocking courtyards of the Hackescher Markt, are the "in" place of the new Berlin. The action has moved east: to Mitte, literally "Middle", the district from which all of Germany will be governed from next year.

Mitte is replete with history; cool, sleazy, at times elegant, but never boring. It has a massive culture shock in store for the Bonn bureaucrats who will soon be arriving with their filing cabinets.

And perhaps a political shock, too: in the last general elections four years ago, the constituency was captured by the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the heirs of the Communist regime.

Because of the vagaries of Germany's electoral system, the voters of Mitte could decide this time who forms the next government.

"It would be great if we could keep Mitte red," said Peter Lorf, a PDS spokesman. "Imagine how annoying that would be to those Bonn politicians."

Red it will be after the elections of 27 September - of that there is little doubt. The only question is which shade. All over Berlin, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats, the biggest party in the regional elections three years ago, are heading for a drubbing. In the constituency of Mitte- Prenzlauer Berg, their share of the vote may not even reach two figures.

"In the last nine years, Helmut Kohl has achieved very little," Mr Jackel said. "He promises and promises before the elections, but nothing ever comes of it." Of the chances of the Social Democrats, led by Gerhard Schroder in the national campaign, the landlord is equally dismissive.

"Schroder is also making great promises. But the Social Democrats are not a workers' party. People here will vote for the PDS, or the extreme right out of frustration. They are the parties of protest."

There is so much to protest about. One in three is unemployed, and those that do have jobs earn just enough to keep up with the soaring rents. The regulars are fed up with having to pay DM3 (pounds 1) for a small glass of beer at the pub, when you can get it, as most of the former customers do, for 80 pfennigs at the supermarket.

The landlord cites the high rent he has to pay. The building is now owned by a Japanese company that has big plans for renovation. If it goes ahead, and the rents go up again, Mr Jackel fears it will be "the end of the working man's pub". His is the last one in the neighbourhood. His 22-year-old daughter is angry because she did an apprenticeship in waitressing but cannot get a job. She says she is being discriminated against, for being an Ossi (an easterner).

Frank Stiller, a toothless janitor who has been coming to the pub since 1949, is angered by all the above, by arrogant Wessis taking everything over, not to mention all the foreigners who work on the local building sites.

Seething silently until now, a customer in a blue shirt cannot hold his tongue any longer. "The foreigners who were here before unification can stay, but those who have come since should be chucked out. Raus(out)," he said loudly, with a sweeping movement of his right arm. No, he does not give his name to foreign journalists. He lost his job on a building site in March. Gone to some Irishman or Pole, he reckons.

The landlord looked embarrassed, and explained once again that frustration runs high. He is not surprised that the racist DVU (the German People's Union) got 12 per cent in the eastern Land of Saxony-Anhalt. The Republicans, another xenophobic party, will do well in east Berlin, he predicts.

What will happen in Mitte is hard to forecast, however. Since the last elections, not only the pubs have been pushed out of their old homes. With them went their clientele: the working class of the former East Berlin who could no longer afford Germany's fledgling Islington. Half the original population has gone to the concrete housing estates on the fringes of the city. In their place have come Wessis who prefer wine bars to pubs, and Social Democrats to the PDS. Mitte is well on its way to gentrification.

The district will stay red, but probably of a lighter hue. Polls conducted by the PDS suggest that the Social Democrats might snatch the seat. The SPD candidate, Wolfgang Thierse, is a respected Ossi who has distinguished himself already on the national stage. The PDS, on the other hand, is fielding Petra Pau, a little-known member of the local nomenklatura.

In the last elections, the PDS captured four constituencies, all in East Berlin. Two of these look safe. Mitte is number three on the winnable list.

Now it becomes complicated. To qualify for a share of its national vote, a party must capture three constituencies, or obtain 5 per cent of the votes cast nationwide. With its four constituencies the last time, the PDS ended up with 30 seats in the Bundestag. If the PDS does not get its three constituencies now, the "lost" votes would be distributed among the bigger parties. Such an outcome would improve the chances of the likely winners - the Social Democrats - of unseating Chancellor Kohl.

Such nuances are lost on the regulars of the Mariola, however, who have more important battles on their minds. "We'll sort these Bonners out when they come here," said Mr Stiller, his fist flying erratically through the air.

"Not in my pub, you won't," the landlord interjects. "But outside the door, that's OK."