German Papers The Day the German Election Turned Ugly

Bavarian conservative leader Edmund Stoiber's brazen criticism of East Germans has further fuelled tensions in Germany's election campaign. Once again, Angela Merkel has been forced to attempt to mitigate the damage.

 No your eyes aren't deceiving you, Mr. Stoiber -- the headlines really are that bad.

No your eyes aren't deceiving you, Mr. Stoiber -- the headlines really are that bad.

Just when Angela Merkel thought her stuttering election campaign couldn't possibly get any worse... it has. The leader of the conservatives' Bavarian sister-party has publicly insulted East Germans and pretty much everyone -- Merkel included -- is furious with him.

Merkel's party, the CDU, was still smarting from Jörg Schönbohm's controversial comments last week. Brandenburg's interior minister had blithely attempted to explain the tragic murder of nine babies in Eastern Germany through a perceived "proletarianization" of East Germans under the former-communist regime. Schönbohm was immediately accused of propagating gross generalizations and of displaying crass insensitivity.

The CDU fears losing votes in the eastern states of Germany and in fact their support duly declined in the opinion polls. Merkel ordered Schönbohm to clarify his comments and the matter was then swiftly brushed under a very thin political carpet.

But now Pandora's Box has sprung open once again. Stoiber, the leader of the CSU (the Bavarian wing of the German conservatives), told a group of his supporters last week: "I do not accept that the east will again decide who will be Germany's chancellor. It cannot be allowed that 'the frustrated' determine Germany's fate." His comments were only yesterday reported in the press, and they have everyone in a quite a state. Merkel went on television last night to try and limit the political fallout from her colleague's remarks, but she has encountered a barrage of criticism.

Despite Merkel's best efforts, the economic and social problems of eastern Germany and the mutual suspicion felt by West and East Germans are rapidly becoming a major issue in this election campaign. Evidentally, the process of German reunification did not begin and end with the fall of the wall.

In the hearts and minds of many Germans, "Wessis" and "Ossis" (as they call each other) remain very distinct. Wessis complain that the huge sums of their money invested in eastern Germany have only gone to waste and that Ossis are embittered and complain far too much. Ossis insist westerners are arrogant and that they ignore their very evident hardship and suffering. (Around 30 percent of former East Germans are now unemployed after industry and businesses were bankrupted by rapid exposure to western markets.)

Angela Merkel has attempted to paper over the cracks in the German social fabric, but, this time, she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Merkel grew up in communist East Germany, but has proclaimed her intention to become the "chancellor of all Germans." Her colleagues are making this claim now look faintly ridiculous.

Again, to really understand what the fuss is about, it is helpful to have a little background on Stoiber himself. Edmund Stoiber is leader of the CSU -- a separate and more conservative party than Merkel's CDU, confined only to Bavaria. CDU and CSU campaign together, but there are marked differences between the two. Stoiber ran against Chancellor Schröder in 2002, but lost. He is now increasingly independent and embittered, and has caused trouble for Merkel by not committing himself to a ministerial post in a possible future conservative government.

Stoiber is fiercely proud of his Bavarian roots and very suspicious of the East. Crucially, insulting and belittling East Germans is actually a vote winner in Bavaria. The southern state is far more prosperous than other German states, and its population vociferously resents all the time and money spent on the East.

Take his comments on August 10 as a case in point (comments he pointedly made after he had been resoundingly criticised for his previous remarks): "If only everywhere were like Bavaria, we would not have any problems at all," he told a group of Bavarian supporters. "But, unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we do not have such intelligent members of the population everywhere like we have in Bavaria." Once again he repeated his political faux pas: "I do not want the election to be decided in the East yet again."

Stoiber has since tried to apologize for his gaff, saying he was misunderstood, but it is clear nobody believes him. In an interview with tabloid die Bildzeitung, he claimed he was only trying to draw attention to the danger of voting for the Left Party and its populist leaders Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine.

Chancellor Schröder has leapt on his political nemesis' remarks, branding them "the height of tastelessness" and claimed such remarks only "cement division and insult people who have lived a life under more difficult conditions than we have in the West."

For Merkel, it is all hugely embarrassing, and no doubt -- as an East German -- personally insulting, too. She said that "insulting voters is the wrong thing to do and something we do not want -- whether it was intended or not." The thinly veiled suspicion is that Stoiber meant exactly what he said and is not all that concerned about knifing Merkel in the back when it suits him. The German papers are up in arms about the whole affair and today revelled in the opportunity to bash Stoiber.

Where else to begin a round-up of the German press's furious reaction than with its most left-wing national newspaper, die Tagezeitung. Under the provocative headline, "Stoiber rebuilds the Wall", the paper attacks Bavaria's leader for his self-righteous prejudice, which has caused untold damage to the conservatives' election campaign.

The paper paints Stoiber as a prima donna, who has never recovered from his election defeat in 2002. "Stoiber's remarks about 'the frustrated' people in eastern Germany express the frustration of a man who believes he has been conned out of the fruits of his political career." He blames East German voters for denying him the chancellorship (who indeed according to political scientists swung the vote behind Schröder last time round). And he's also bitter that Merkel will now likely become chancellor, instead of him. The paper is adamant that he should not become a minister in a new German government. "It would be wisest for him to stay put in Bavaria."

Left of center Sueddeutsche Zeitung is prepared to be a touch more sympathetic to Stoiber. Its commentator suggests that he probably didn't mean to imply that "if the Ossis were only half as good as us Bavarians, then they'd be a lot better off." But it's not what he meant, but how his comments are interpreted which matters most -- particularly in the East.

The paper agrees with TAZ that Stoiber is still brooding over his defeat in 2002, which he blames on Ossis "whose votes cost him the chancellorship." Amusingly, the commentator tries his hand at amateur psychoanalysis to explain the CSU leader's comments. "In psychology, one is aware of the phenomenon of long-suppressed experiences of rejection, which can suddenly rear their head, unfortunately -- for the most part -- at the wrong time and in the wrong place."

SZ is clear that Stoiber's rant will cost the conservatives dear in the election, even if it will not harm the minister's own election chances in Bavaria. The social wounds his remarks have uncovered only go to show that "although Germany may now be united, the Germans themselves are a long way from being sufficiently united."

Die Welt is rather less understanding of the Bavarian minister's gaff. "If Stoiber seriously wants to claim power for himself and the CSU on the national stage, then he should stop acting like a Bavarian prince." Ironically, the paper says, Stoiber was practically the only conservative political big-gun to have actively campaigned in resent weeks; the others have all gone off on holiday. Fundamentally, the commentator argues, "German unity is one of the real tests of this election campaign. The conservatives, from Brandenburg to Bavaria, have not yet proven that they are up to this task."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine is clearly rather disappointed with Edmund Stoiber, a politician after all who they have in the past had the inclination to support. Rather cynically, the commentator points out that "if it was the conservatives' intention to try and minimize their percentage of the vote in the eastern states over the past few weeks, then you really have to take your hat off to them. First Schönbohm and now Stoiber: what a double whammy!"

The collateral damage in the East will be large, the paper suggests. "Stoiber has confirmed exactly those prejudices which are widely perceived of him and his party." Furthermore, he has given the impression that he is campaigning just as much against Merkel as for her. And to put in bluntly: "East Germans have just as much a say in who becomes chancellor as the Bavarians, whether Stoiber likes it or not."

"We are witnessing the unfolding a personal drama and seeing the desolate image of the conservative parties running around like headless chickens, exposing the deep rift which run through this country," Financial Times Deutschland mourns today. The personal drama is Stoiber's own. He hasn't got over his defeat in 2002, the paper suggests, but worse still, "It is totally unprofessional that he continues to weep over this injury so loudly." The conservatives can write off any hope they had of gaining votes in the East now.

"The whole of Germany is damaged by Stoiber's rebuke. The country has been struggling for 'inner unity' for the past 15 years. In addition to reversing economic decline, it's about tearing down 'the wall in people's heads.'" Sardonically and rather wittily, the paper's commentator concludes that this wall is busily being reconstructed. "In Bavaria today, people are eagerly mixing cement."


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