Ossi and Wessi test the German water

BERLIN - The two giants of east German politics go to the polls tomorrow in regional elections which will provide one of the last tests of the national mood before next month's general election, writes Adrian Bridge.

On the surface, they are diametrically opposed. Manfred Stolpe, the prime minister of Brandenburg, is an 'Ossi' (east German) and a Social Democrat. Kurt Biedenkopf, his counterpart in Saxony, is a 'Wessi' and a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Both, however, have one thing in common: huge personal followings in their respective Lander (regional states) and unassailable leads.

According to recent opinion polls, Mr Biedenkopf, a former CDU general secretary, may well repeat his astonishing success in Saxony's 1990 election by winning an absolute majority, a rare feat in German politics. Mr Stolpe, former negotiator for the East German Protestant Church, is expected to fare almost as well in Brandenburg.

Much of Mr Biedenkopf's popularity - locally he is known as 'King Kurt' - can be ascribed to his passionate promotion of Saxony's cause over the past four years. Although from the west, Mr Biedenkopf has successfully rekindled self-pride among Saxony's 5 million inhabitants. Extensive rebuilding projects in Dresden and Leipzig are restoring some of their former glory. Under his leadership, moreover, the long- awaited economic upturn at last appears to have begun.

Mr Stolpe has benefited from the gradual reversal of east Germany's economic fortunes. In Brandenburg unemployment has stabilised at about 14 per cent, while industrial production has risen for the first time since 1989.

The key factor in Mr Stolpe's popularity, however, has been the way he has dealt with accusations that he was as an informer for East Germany's Stasi secret police. He says that as chief negotiator for the church he was obliged to have contacts with the Stasi, but denies having betrayed anyone. Many Brandenburgers see the Stasi allegations as a 'Wessi' plot, aimed at bringing down an 'Ossi' local hero.