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Germany: Critical Comments About Eastern Voters Cause Uproar

Munich, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The German government's efforts to win electoral support in the former communist eastern Germany may have been hurt by a remark by the chief Government spokesman.

Otto Hauser, personally chosen as spokesman only a few days ago by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has caused an uproar by apparently suggesting that west German economic assistance in rebuilding the eastern German provinces could be affected by the way they vote.

In a newspaper interview, Hauser said the people in eastern Germany should know that the willingness to help should not be overstrained by the election of "extremists." His comments provoked a flood of criticism. The critics said the Government should not be trying to threaten people into voting for them. Even the respected newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which normally supports the Government, said the spokesman's words were ill-chosen.

As was to be expected, Hauser has denied that his words should be considered a threat or a warning to voters in east Germany. He said he was only reflecting opinions he had heard from voters in western Germany. He repeatedly stressed that he had not suggested that financial assistance would stop.

Hauser did not clarify whom he meant when he spoke of "extremists." But statements about "extremists" in eastern Germany usually mean the PDS party, the successor to the former east German communist party. Hauser's comments appeared to fit with a publicity campaign by the governing CDU against the neo-communists.

A major part of the CDU's campaign for the federal elections in September is to suggest that the opposition social democrats might try to create a governing coalition with the PDS. CDU publicity suggests that this would bring neo-communists into power in Germany, a worrisome prospect for most west Germans.

The CDU campaign is prompted by polls showing growing support for the PDS in eastern Germany. Many political analysts expect a strong vote for it in the September election. The reason is not hard to see. Voters in east Germany, who once hailed Helmut Kohl as their savior and gave him heavy support, are now said to be disenchanted because of the Kohl government's failure to overcome soaring unemployment and its perceived lack of interest in the region. Opinion polls show that many eastern Germans feel they are treated as second-class citizens by the wealthy west Germany.

Concern about how east Germans might vote has grown since the provincial elections in the eastern German province of Saxony-Anhalt in April. It was this that Hauser was referring to when he spoke of the "election of extremists." Most votes went to the Social Democrats but they did not have enough to form a Government. Strong efforts were made to persuade the social democrats to form a coalition with the Christian Democrats although the CDU had lost heavily in the election. They refused and instead formed a minority social democrat government which rules with the unwritten support of the neo-communist PDS, although the PDS is not part of the Government.

The CDU immediately accused the social democrats of seeking the support of "extremists" to retain power. The party's top spokesmen warned that the same could happen in Bonn if people gave their vote to the social democrats in the federal elections

The explanation from the local social democrats was simple: east Germans looked on the PDS differently than people in western Germany. They believed it represented their interests, and, above all, did not want the CDU in their Government

Since then, a few prominent west German politicians have echoed this view about the PDS. Even some east German members of the CDU have said Helmut Kohl's election advisors should understand that a campaign against the PDS is unlikely to win voters in eastern Germany.