In Germany's east, the party that once ran the show may be dying
“MECKLENBURG-WEST POMERANIA is turning into a high-tech state!” boomed the stocky bearded man on the platform. “It'll be the best place for business in eastern Germany!” The loyal crowd huddling under umbrellas in the beautifully restored medieval market-place of Rostock, on the Baltic coast, looked bemused. Most of them like their Social Democratic state premier, Harald Ringstorff, a former chemist, and have nothing against his coalition with the ex-communist Democratic Socialists, though it aroused controversy when it was created four years ago. But the idea that the economy of the northernmost of the former East Germany's five states is forging ahead strikes the crowd as laughable.
Last year it shrank by 0.8%. Unemployment stands at 18%, the same as when Mr Ringstorff took office. Yet in the state election, held on the same day as Germany's general election, 41% opted for his Social Democrats, six percentage points more than in 1998. Though the Democratic Socialists' vote fell by eight points to 16%, Mr Ringstorff's “red-red” coalition is intact.
In the general election, the Democratic Socialists did badly throughout the former communist east. Their share of the vote there fell from 22% in 1998 to less than 17%. In the west, they polled a mere 1%, the same as in 1998, giving them an overall nationwide score of 4%, a percentage point below the threshold normally required to enable a party to form an official group in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. If the ex-communists had won three individual seats despite failing to cross the 5% national threshold, they could still have retained the right to an allocation of seats in proportion to their total national vote. But they won only two directly mandated seats—so that will be their sole tally in the new parliament. In 1998, when they polled just 5.1% nationwide, they were granted 36 seats, despite winning only four directly elected ones.
Is this the beginning of the end for the heirs to East Germany's communist rulers? It looks that way. Their participation in ruling coalitions in the city-state of Berlin as well as in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania has deprived them of their identity as a protest party. Their failure to make a mark during last month's floods in the east sullied their image as the area's true guardians. And the resignation in July of Gregor Gysi as Berlin's economics minister over an air-miles scandal robbed them of a star. It is chilly without one.
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