Honecker's Revenge: The Enduring Legacy of German Unification in the 2005 Election

By Kopstein, Jeffrey; Ziblatt, Daniel | German Politics and Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Honecker's Revenge: The Enduring Legacy of German Unification in the 2005 Election


Kopstein, Jeffrey, Ziblatt, Daniel, German Politics and Society


A core lesson of Germany's federal election of September 2005 is the enduring legacy of the communist past in East Germany, a legacy that substantially shapes politics in unified Germany. Fifteen years after unification, the crucial difference in German politics still lies in the East. The 2005 election demonstrated the enduring east-west divide in German party politics. The result is that Germany today has two coherent party systems, one in the East and one in the West. Combined, however, they produce incoherent outcomes. Any party that hopes to win at the federal level must perform well in the very different circumstances in the East.

Keywords: Germany, Bundestag, elections, East Germany, political parties, unification

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At first glance, any analysis of contemporary Germany would seem to require only minimally thinking about the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). For most East Germans, life in the GDR is increasingly a distant memory and unification has been a resounding success. Whether judged by productivity growth, aggregate incomes, air and water quality, or political freedom, East Germans have benefited enormously from joining the united German state. East and West Germans share similar patterns of work and leisure, they are represented by the same trade unions and employer associations, and they divide their votes among the same palette of political parties. In fact, the shadow of the communist past appears so far removed that Erich Honecker, the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), is more likely today to be the object of quiet laughter or pity rather than fear or hatred.

Yet, a core lesson of Germany's federal election in September 2005 is that the communist past has in fact an enduring legacy in East Germany, a legacy that substantially shapes politics in unified Germany. Fifteen years after unification, the crucial difference in German politics still lies in the East. Indeed, at one level, the Bundestag election of September 2005 simply demonstrated, as did the 2002 result, the presence of an east-west divide in German party politics. As in 2002, any party that hopes to win at the federal level must perform well in the very different circumstances of the East.

But beyond observing that parties must win the "East" to capture the prize of national office, a particularly ironic and less frequently noted feature of Germany's east-west electoral divide can explain what is perhaps the most puzzling outcome of the federal election of 2005: the failure of the two major parties to garner at least 70 percent of the vote for the first time since 1949. To some, the decay in Germany's party system indicated by the simultaneous fall in support for both major parties simply seems to be an aligning of German trends with those in other democracies, such as France, Canada, Italy, and Great Britain. Corruption scandals, the importance of the mass media as opposed to party organizations in mobilizing voters, disputes over welfare reform, and declining rates of unionization all, according to most accounts, have reduced the importance of political parties in established democracies. (1) The latest developments in Germany, so the argument goes, are part of a broader trend, reflected in public opinion beginning in the 1970s and fortified by the breakthrough of the Greens in the 1980s, in which Germany is no longer so different from other advanced democracies.

As compelling as this logic is, our article offers an alternative argument: the decay in Germany's party system reflected in the decline in support for both major parties is a direct outgrowth of German unification in 1989-90. Absent unification, Germany's previously robust party system would have remained entirely intact. Decisive in this regard is the presence of two distinctive but now overlapping electorates. One electorate was produced by fifty years of capitalism and the other by fifty years of communism.

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