Why Many Former East Germans Don't Vote

Von Friederike Heine
Though it's been more than two decades since reunification, voter turnout in eastern Germany is still significantly lower than in western states.

Though it's been more than two decades since reunification, voter turnout in eastern Germany is still significantly lower than in western states.

Foto: A9999 DB dpa/ dpa

Nearly a quarter of a century after German reunification, Chancellor Angela Merkel still favors dishes that were common in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). "Solyanka," a sour soup with meat and pickled vegetables originating in Russia, still appears regularly on her dinner table, and likely those of many former East Germans.

But culinary tastes are not the only thing that distinguishes easterners from their western neighbors. Since reunification in 1990, voter turnout in the former GDR has been significantly lower than in the western states. The national average of 70.8 percent for the last federal election in 2009 -- which in itself is the lowest the country has seen in its democratic history -- was still six percentage points higher than the average turnout in the former East (64.3 percent).

"I wouldn't be surprised if turnout in former East Germany  dropped even lower this year," says political scientist Gero Neugebauer of Berlin's Free University. "People in the eastern states are increasingly disaffected with national politics -- many feel disadvantaged and powerless to effect change."

Indeed, statistics from the Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB) show that the five former East German states have consistently had the lowest voter turnout across Germany, with Saxony-Anhalt hitting an all-time low of 60.5 percent in 2009. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony were not far behind with 63 percent and 64 percent respectively.

According to experts, the reason for the disparity is the political socialization that citizens -- at least those old enough to remember -- experienced under the communist regime. "It's kind of a backlash," says Neugebauer. "East Germans are intent on excercising their democratic right not to vote, after being forced to do so for many years."

A Different Landscape

But there are also other factors that go beyond the older generation. According to Neugebauer, there is a tendency in the former East to defer to political elites. "It could be argued that this is another remnant of communist culture that is now manifesting itself among younger voters," he concludes.

This somewhat passive political stance goes some way toward explaining the growing popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel . A recent poll conducted by Infratest Dimap shows her conservatives achieving a 37 percent vote share in the five former East German states. This marks a significant change from 2009, when the Christian Democrats (CDU)  received only 30 percent in the former GDR.

"On the one hand, Merkel respresents the former East German girl that everyone can relate to," says Oskar Niedermayer, a professor at Berlin's Free University. "On the other hand, she exudes the confidence of someone who has everything under control." Niedermayer also says he expects voter turnout in the region will continue to drop.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany's far-left Left Party  is also going from strength to strength in the eastern states. The party was founded in 2007 as the merger of the post-communist successor to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany until 1989, and a left-wing breakaway from the Social Democrats (SPD). According to the Infratest poll, the Left Party is likely to achieve a 20 percent vote share in former East Germany, compared to 5 percent in the western states.

The center-left SPD is having a harder time reaching out to eastern voters. Only 21 percent of voters would give their vote to Merkel's challenger Peer Steinbrück, in comparison to 30 percent among those in western states.

Despite the disparity, the eastern German vote is unlikely to make waves in the election -- the five re-established states make up less than 20 percent of the German electorate.

Nevertheless, says political scientist Gero Neugebauer: "Though the number of eligible voters in the eastern states isn't that large, parties should still be trying to reach out to them. There's a lot left to do in terms of real reunification."

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