POTSDAM, Germany – Parties on the fringes of Germany's political spectrum have been given an eager reception in the depressed East ahead of state elections this weekend, luring voters with a mix of xenophobic standards and new complaints over plans to reduce much-needed benefits.
Germany's main parties — the Christian Democrats (search) and the Social Democrats — say there's nothing to the fringe groups except the desire to provoke fear and stoke resentment about promises of prosperity that never arrived after the Berlin Wall (search) came down 15 years ago. But polls show gains for both shadowy far-right parties and the former East German communists.
The possibility of far-right success has sparked worries by Jewish leaders and even Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search), who expressed concern last week about a possible threat to Germany's international reputation.
One voter, 23-year-old Jens Heidenreich, said resentment about the more prosperous western Germany — long a point of contention in the east — was one reason he would vote for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the heir to former East Germany's ruling communists.
"They get more money for the same jobs," he said. "And they have no interest in us."
Schroeder's Social Democrats are likely to get hammered in Sunday's votes, prolonging a series of electoral setbacks that have undermined his political fortunes.
The backlash against Schroeder's reform agenda, launched last year, has been especially vicious in the east, where a jobless rate nearing 20 percent is about twice the national average and massive government aid props up the local economy. Street protests against the reforms that have been taking place every week around Germany got their start in the east.
Opponents of the right say fringe parties are exploiting old divisions between east and west that may no longer exist.
"The eastern Germans aren't second class, but they feel like they are," said Klaus Ness, a Social Democratic activist in Potsdam. "They feel like they've been abandoned."
Slapped onto a campaign poster is an unsigned sticker of protest against mainstream parties that sums up the mood: "In 15 years of growth, the only thing to climb is unemployment! Don't be stupid!"
In Potsdam, a historic Prussian city where cobblestone streets and architectural treasures like the rococo Sans Souci palace contrast sharply with crumbling communist-era block buildings, posters by the far-right German People's Union use an old xenophobic standard — "German jobs for Germans first!" — but also the theme of new laws to limit unemployment benefits: "Resist!" or "Fed Up?" are the simple messages.
The party caused a shock six years ago when it took 13 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the most blighted eastern states. But it proved to have little to offer, got caught up in infighting and never made it to the next election.
That's generally been the pattern for Germany's far-right groups, which have no seats in the national parliament. But in Brandenburg, the People's Union may have staying power, winning 5.3 percent in 1999 and now polling about six percent with little public campaigning.
Even in Saxony, a relatively prosperous region governed by the conservative Christian Democrats, the far right is poised for success.
Polls in Saxony give nine percent to the anti-immigrant National Democratic Party, which has bounced back from a botched government attempt to outlaw it. Two weeks ago, the party came from nowhere to win four percent in the western state of Saarland.
Mainstream parties tend to dismiss the far right as an outlet for voter protest.
"They are phantom parties," said Ness. "They have no events, no one knows anyone from those parties. They play on the foolishness of people who don't read newspapers and don't watch television news."
It's harder to dismiss the Party of Democratic Socialism, the heir to former East Germany's ruling communists, which sits in the Berlin city government and helps shape policy in many other local councils in the east.
Positioned as defenders of social justice to the left of the Social Democrats, the ex-communists are showing gains in both Brandenburg and Saxony, banking in part on nostalgia for the days when the communist dictatorship assured full employment and welfare benefits.
On Sunday, an alliance of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats that currently governs the state could retain enough votes to shut the ex-communists out of power, and a conservative win seems secure in Saxony. But the protest votes will send another signal to the Berlin government.
Schroeder has implored Germans for 11/2 years to accept that pruning their cherished, tax-funded welfare state is needed to stop the steady rise of labor costs, spark the economy and bring down unemployment.
Polls show that a large majority of Germans agree changes are needed, but balk when asked to make personal sacrifices — a contradiction that has bedeviled governments across Europe as they try to adjust to leaner times.
In Germany, the latest laws scaling back benefits for the long-term jobless have ignited debate over economic inequality that have largely been taboo since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 15 years ago.
German President Horst Koehler touched off controversy this week by appearing to suggest that the east should get used to a lower standard of living.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification in 1990, accused the parties on the left and right of profiting from easterners' fears for the future.
"These people — and I see absolutely no difference between far right and far left — can never bring us into the future," Kohl said on the campaign trail in Brandenburg. "They live off the misery of their own country."
The heirs to the communist party bristle at such criticisms, saying they have been working to move into the mainstream.
Party chairman Lothar Bisky said the limits on benefits are not just "poison for the east" but are dividing the nation — "the top and bottom classes, not the east and west."