Merkel Faces Tough Questions While Campaigning in Former East Germany

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MAGDEBURG, Germany -- When Chancellor Angela Merkel made an hourlong campaign stop in this town in the former East Germany this week, Ilse Siegert was determined not to miss her chance.

A descendant of an impoverished noble family who landed here in the chaos of 1945, Ms. Siegert, 74, has seen her share of German history. For more than a decade, she has campaigned for better benefits for retirees and others she thinks are not getting their fair share from the German state. So, she said, she buttonholed Ms. Merkel as she worked the crowd of about 1,500 on Tuesday and demanded to know what the chancellor planned to do about the issue. Ms. Merkel shook her hand and smiled, she said.

"Before the election, they all want to know us," Ms. Siegert said. "After the election, no one knows us at all."

She said she might vote for Ms. Merkel on Sunday, when the chancellor hopes to win a third term, but was still considering shunning the election altogether.

Ms. Merkel, 59, a trained physicist, spent her first 35 years in the Communist East, so she may be considered "one of us" in these parts of Germany by the political and other elites who like to talk, at least publicly, of the blossoming "new states." But she may also have an uphill battle to win over eastern Germans who feel shortchanged by capitalism nearly a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Parts of the former East, particularly southern regions around Leipzig and Dresden, have flourished. But in places like Magdeburg, a 1,000-year-old town with Germany's oldest Gothic cathedral, a renowned university and some very Soviet-looking buildings that replaced bombed ruins left by the Allies, the present and future look less gleaming.

In more than a dozen conversations a visitor had with older residents at Ms. Merkel's campaign stop, at Old Market Square, talk turned quickly to their too-meager pensions, and among younger spectators to their abiding indifference toward the chancellor.

Wages in the former East still tend to be lower than in the former West, and while pensions have evened out, many Easterners, reared on illusory views of Western bounty, still feel cheated.

Those who had lived in the West before the wall fell rarely grouse much anymore about how much reunification cost -- estimates run around $2.7 trillion -- although some note occasionally that while the living conditions of East Germans may have been miserable, most went along with Communist rule for four decades.

Eastern Germany has far fewer people, and votes, to offer than the West, but with polls showing the race tightening in its final days, Ms. Merkel found time to make her case here, with her usual stump speech modified in an effort to appeal. "We have no votes to give away," she emphasized, possibly the same thought that led her to visit Magdeburg and surrounding towns after catastrophic floods this summer.

Political loyalties in the former East Germany, with a population of roughly 15.5 million, were split in the last federal elections, in 2009, between Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats, who won slightly less than 30 percent of the vote, and the far-left Die Linke, which got just under 29 percent. The center-left Social Democrats, the No. 2 party nationally, came in a distant third with 18 percent.

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrat who is Ms. Merkel's main challenger, caused a stir in August when he accused her of lacking an emotional affinity for Europe, something he attributed to her East German background. Mr. Steinbrück swiftly denied any intent to impugn all East Germans, whom he called "hardworking, enterprising people."

But the backtracking failed to convince some, including Werner Schulz, a European Parliament member who was in Germany's Parliament for 15 years and a human rights activist in East Germany. Someone who spoke like Mr. Steinbrück was not worthy of becoming chancellor, Mr. Schulz said.

Some of the warmest applause Ms. Merkel received from the crowd on Tuesday came when she praised Europe as a place in which freedom of speech, religion, the media and association are guaranteed. The line -- a stump speech staple -- resonated more here than in the West, and to whistling hecklers she added the zinger that, yes, even in Magdeburg, there was no price to pay for disagreeing with her.

Memories of East Germany had surfaced before the chancellor arrived, when Petra Zieger, an East German rock singer, belted out her 1989 hit "Das Eis Taut" -- "The Ice Is Melting" -- whose lyrics hint at the collapse of the Communist system months before the Berlin Wall actually fell.

Dwelling more than in the West on the evolution of modern Europe, Ms. Merkel noted that "wise people" made Germany's peace with France and Poland after World War II. In a similar spirit, she noted that a decade ago, Germany was seen economically as "the sick man of Europe."

"We have no reason to walk around with our nose in the air," declining to help others now, she said.

That seemed intended for Ms. Siegert and others on the square who shared her views. Although they assured a visitor that they had nothing against foreigners, they also complained that the welfare state did more for them, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, than for hard-up native citizens.

Among the more upbeat attendees were two foreigners, Izaak Bimenyimana, 20, from Burundi, and Esifu Abdullah, 25, from Ghana, who both said they had been granted asylum and were now students. Mr. Bimenyimana said he just wanted to see Ms. Merkel "eye to eye."

Most members of a group of 18 Chinese snapping away on smartphones and wearing hats handed out by the chancellor's party said they were glad that their exchange visit had given them a chance to see such a rally.

Helling Zeidler, 66, a retired worker in Magdeburg's pharmaceutical industry, looked wistful. His glasses, gray hair, beard and worn attire, which might have been vaguely daring in the 1980s, all spoke of that era's bygone struggle for freedom. He and so many others had all been "out there" then, he said, seeking liberation.

So how did things go after 1989? Mr. Zeidler was asked. The factories he worked for passed from one company to another, he said, dropping names like Salutas and Novartis.

"It's a bit complicated," he said with a smile. "But that's how it is in the East."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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