LEIPZIG, Germany—Sixteen years ago, Gunter Roehring came to the Nikolai Church to find a new world. Today he's back and simply hoping to help people find work.
Roehring was one of thousands of people who toppled the old communist East German state. They met at the church and planned for a free world, and then they marched and the nation joined in.
Today, Roehring's city of Leipzig has a 20 percent unemployment rate, and that's considered good in parts of former East Germany. He helps out in a small room at the church where people come to find jobs and skills.
The contrast is pretty much everything you need to know to understand Sunday's German election. It's not about dreams and big ideas. It's about putting food on the table.
"Back then, people had an idea of what freedom meant. They'd seen the golden West on television," Roehring said. "This isn't what they dreamed about."
Outside the church, a woman with a hat at her feet played the accordion and sang, "There are no jobs here" and "Let's all go to the welfare office."
It could be the theme song of the election. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder this summer called for national elections a year early, after his Social Democratic Party lost a state election in the North Rhine-Westphalia, a party stronghold for four decades.
It's looks likely that his party will lose control of the German Parliament to the more conservative Christian Democrats, who would make Angela Merkel the first female German chancellor. In Germany, voters elect members of parliament and the controlling party selects the chancellor.
The German daily newspaper Die Welt on Thursday said: "The failure of the Schroeder government is crystallized in a single figure: 5.216 million. This is how high unemployment was in February 2005—the post-war record." (Unemployment now stands at 4.72 million).
Reinhardt Schlinkert, owner of Infratest polling, said voters are divided about who would do a better job overall in running the country, but they're clear that the main issue is jobs.
Schlinkert said data consistently indicated that voters believe Schroeder's party has a better grasp of foreign policy and is more committed to social justice.
But Merkel is far ahead—52 percent to 25 percent—in polls asking who would do a better job of turning around the German economy.
Merkel wants to reduce non-wage labor costs, including health insurance expenses, and increase the sales tax.
"It's really a simple matter of people looking around them and saying, `The present government has shown its incompetence. Let's give a new government a try,'" Schlinkert said. "People are saying they will come out to vote—our numbers predict 80 percent turnout—and they will vote on the economy."
Schroeder came to power on a pledge to reduce unemployment numbers to less than 3.5 million. In the past he told voters not to re-elect him if he failed in bringing work back to Germany.
In the last election, Schroeder staked out a firm opposition to the Iraq invasion. He was re-elected even though the unemployment figure increased to 4 million. Now it approaches 5 million. Germany's 11.6 percent unemployment rate in August was the highest in the European Union.
Schroeder tried to implement some reforms by reducing unemployment benefits from several years to one year, cutting student support at universities from indefinite to six years (after that, students pay marginal fees), and changing the heath care and pension systems. They're reforms that many believe are needed to make the German labor market more competitive.
Albrecht Goeschel, a researcher at the German Institute for Urban Studies in Berlin, said the treatments needed to heal the country are painful.
"Everyone knows Germany must be reformed, but nobody wants their part of the pie to be touched," he said. "I fear this will be another short-lived government and that we will soon be in a pattern of tossing out the old government every three years, and no progress will be made."
"We clearly have two societies here, one in the east and one in the west," said Heinrich Oberreuter, head of the Tutzing Academy for Political Education. "Unfortunately, right now, they both are struggling."
The situation, however, is worse in the east, "where everything people were raised with vanished overnight. Everything changed."
A few blocks from the Nikolai Church, Reingard Leister, 65, walks through the newly remodeled Leipzig train station. It's another symbol of how life has changed in the east. She remembers how 15 years ago there was a single shop in the cavernous, soot-stained building. Today, there's a block-long skylight and three floors of shops and restaurants. She likes it here. This is what the changes in Germany have brought.
On the other hand, since the wall fell, her husband—a college professor in the old east—and many of their friends have struggled to find work. Leister works in a pharmacy, and her husband found a job teaching the unemployed one day a week.
"We'll make it through today, but there is no planning for the future," she said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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