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Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 06:53 GMT 07:53 UK
Winning the east
Magdeburg precinct
Many of Magdeburg's young people have gone west

On the surface, Magdeburg - capital of the eastern German state of Saxony Anhalt - is shiny.

Large shopping centres and freshly renovated 19th Century buildings line wide boulevards, thanks in part to the enormous sums that have flowed into the east from the west since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Holger Fiedler may not work again
But you don't even have to scratch at the surface to notice that something is odd here.

The place feels empty.

Because there is no work. One in five are unemployed here, and many young people have left. They have gone west, taking their talents where they can be used and draining the region of its brightest and best.

Click here to see August unemployment rates

Former conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised easterners "flourishing landscapes". Outgoing Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said getting the east on its feet was top of his list.

The people here have seen both the conservatives and the Social Democrats at the helm, and neither has delivered. In the last elections of 1998, Mr Kohl was punished for his failure. Mr Schroeder is waiting to see whether he will suffer the same fate.

Race for votes

The eastern states, with their declining population, make up only a fifth of the German electorate. But they are volatile voters, lacking traditional loyalties to the Western parties.

Torn poster of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
Read Clare Murphy's campaign reports

On Friday, Clare Murphy reports from Hanover on the women's vote

With Mr Schroeder's Social Democrats neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with the conservative coalition led by Bavarian leader Edmund Stoiber ahead of Sunday's general election, the race is on to conquer the east, and pick up what could prove to be the winning votes.

Under Mr Schroeder's government, eastern unemployment hit the 1.4 million mark - its highest since 1990, just after the Berlin Wall fell. It is double the rate in western Germany.

The region languishes behind the west on economic growth, productivity and living standards. Mr Stoiber, pointing to his economic successes in Bavaria, promises to change all that.

He has named as his eastern affairs minister Lothar Spaeth, head of Jenoptik, the high technology group that is one of the east's success stories. His programme promises more money, less bureaucracy, more jobs.

Map of Germany
"I don't believe in it any more. I don't really blame Schroeder for failing to fix things here, I just don't think Stoiber will be able to do it either," says Holger Fiedler, an unemployed electrician in his fifties who has not had a permanent job for eight years.

"It's hard not to feel nostalgic about the time when we all had work, before the wall fell," he says. "I don't believe I'll ever have a proper job again."

Stoiber under fire

Saxony-Anhalt has already delivered Mr Schroeder a major blow this year, ejecting his Social Democrats from the regional parliament and replacing them with a coalition of the local branch of the conservative Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the neo-liberal Free Democrats.

Charlotte Franz
Charlotte Franz is no Stoiber fan
But Mr Stoiber, leading a coalition of the CDU and his own conservative Bavarian party, the CSU, into next Sunday's general election does not seem popular here. His aides have even taken to carrying umbrellas after Mr Stoiber was pelted with eggs at an eastern rally.

His unpopularity appears to stem in part from his infamous opposition a series of large subsidies to the east in the past, as well as the fact he ousted easterner Angela Merkel as the conservatives' candidate for the chancellory earlier this year.

And he totally failed to pick up any points when this region was hit by catastrophic flooding just a few weeks ago.

Mr Stoiber was on holiday while Mr Schroeder was pulling on his Wellingtons and embarking on a tour of devastated towns and villages.

And when Mr Stoiber finally did arrive at the scene, he was simply unable to compete with the personable chancellor.

"Stoiber looked terrible next to Schroeder," says Charlotte Franz, a teacher. "He was totally wooden."

"It's not been the only thing that's made me decide to vote SPD on Sunday, but it has played a role. Schroeder hasn't achieved much here, but I don't believe Stoiber would either. So I'm opting for the more likeable of the two."

Former communists

Mr Fiedler, however, won't be voting on Sunday, along with several others I met in Magdeburg today.

Many here who turned out in full force after the fall of the wall for their first taste of democracy have already lost their faith in the politicians.

The post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, which may not make the 5% needed to enter parliament, is hoping to pick up at least a few votes from those fed up with the failures of the Western parties.

"I'll either not vote, or I'll vote PDS," says Julia Bock, an artist. "I'm not wild about them, but I'd like them to be in parliament."

Mr Schroeder has ruled out any coalition with the PDS.

But if they do make it into the house, it could prove to be their support that gives Mr Schroeder the viable working majority he needs to have another stab at government.

graphic showing unemployment in eastern and western Germany

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Gerhard Schroeder

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See also:

13 Sep 02 | Europe
20 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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