It does not even exist yet, nor has it been approved by the party’s rank and file. But already Germany’s proposed new coalition cabinet is coming under heavy fire for its alleged failure to represent the former East Germany.
With the exception of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the new government - a potential coalition between Ms. Merkel’s Christian democrats, the Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats – does not contain a single politician from the former East Germany.
That lack is all the more striking given the intense debate about the former communist eastern states in the wake of last September’s election, which underlined ongoing political divisions between east and west, nearly three decades after reunification.
Just 20 percent of senior executives working in east Germany are native to the region.
The parties of the far right and far left - Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and the Left Party - both fared better in the former East Germany than in the country’s western states. The AfD’s strong showing was particularly striking. It became the second largest party in the east. In the state of Saxony, the AfD even beat out Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, to become the most popular party.
The strong showing by the anti-immigrant AfD in the east prompted a lot of reflection about the political culture there. Some observers saw the AfD’s success as a protest against the perceived abandonment of the east by mainstream politicians. Others took it as evidence of lingering anti-democratic tendencies.
For these reasons, the lack of cabinet representation has struck a nerve among eastern politicians. Several senior figures, including state premiers, have complained about it.
Dietmar Woidke, the Social Democratic state premier of Brandenburg, demanded a rethink: “Of course an east German - preferably an east German woman - should be included in the cabinet,” he told Handelsblatt. Mr. Woidke’s comments were echoed by Reiner Haseloff, the Christian Democratic state premier of Saxony-Anhalt and Manuela Schwesig, his counterpart in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
East Germans’ frustration with their perceived marginalization is not confined to party politics. According to a 2015 study from Leipzig University, just 20 percent of senior executives working in the east of Germany are native to the region. Even though living standards between the two halves of Germany have slowly been evening out, says the head of the study, Olaf Jacobs, “there has been no real convergence at the level of social elites.”
Since unification in 1990, almost 2.5 million west Germans have moved east, where they are considerably overrepresented in leadership roles. Westerners comprise between 80 and 95 percent of senior figures in management and trade unions in eastern states. Eighty percent of higher educational institutions are led by Westerners; they make up 94 percent of the senior judges in the region.
Iris Gleicke, the outgoing government’s commissioner for eastern Germany, called for a “strong, competent voice for the east, who will work to promote innovation, research and development in eastern Germany.”
The solidarity tax – a special tax that all Germans pay to fund the reunification of the country – expires in 2019. That is why a fundamental reorientation of regional policy for the eastern states is needed, Ms. Gleicke told Handelsblatt. “We need equal standards of living: For this, an effective, nationwide system of support for systemically-weaker regions is necessary, in both east and west.”
Economists in eastern Germany are divided on the significance of the absence of easterners in the proposed cabinet. Oliver Holtemöller of the Halle Institute for Economic Research told Handelsblatt that although competence was clearly the main criterion for ministerial selection, it should not be the only one. “The success of the AfD, in the east above all, shows that social trust and community solidarity are in danger. In this situation, it’s good to make sure that there is balanced regional representation. The fact that state premiers from the east are asking about this shows that the new coalition has not been successful in this area.”
Joachim Ragnitz of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Dresden, another prominent economist in eastern Germany, has a different point of view. “The federal parliament is responsible for representing the east’s interests, and there is absolutely adequate representation there,” he told Handelsblatt. “Cabinet ministers should be appointed for expertise, not regional proportionality. The calls from the state premiers for more eastern ministers will not achieve the desired results.”
Additionally, he points out, the coalition agreement contains initiatives to help the eastern states. “The whole debate seems redundant to me,” he argues.
Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. Barbara Gillmann covers education, research, family policy, demographics and the Green party. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]