Revenge of the East

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Revenge of the East

During Germany’s federal elections last week, the party known as Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, won more than 44 percent of the district of Oppach in eastern Germany. One supporter said he voted for the party because he was opposed to refugees. “Once you’ve got weeds, they are hard to get rid of,” he said while sipping a beer, “so you make sure they don’t grow to start with.”

In the state of Saxony, where Oppach is located, the far-right party won 27 percent of votes. Nationwide, the AfD won 12.6 percent and earned a presence in the Bundestag for the first time. It garnered especially strong support in eastern Germany, and the result was described as “the revenge of the East.”

While the AfD advocates policies like leaving the eurozone, the election campaign focused on immigration and held Chancellor Angela Merkel responsible for the refugee crisis in 2015. Ironically, the party earned more support in areas of eastern Germany with few refugee settlements than in western Germany, where most immigrants live.

It was similar during the last U.S. presidential election, where coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles, diverse and progressive, tended to support Hillary Clinton, while the heartland mostly voted for Donald Trump. In the western world, areas with little diversity have demonstrated a more evident rightward swing.

The rise of the far right in eastern Germany comes from a sense of relative deprivation. Older Saxony residents complain that they cannot afford a new pair of glasses, but the government spends money on refugees. While Germany has been reunited as a state, the wage gap between former East and West Germany is still 20 percent, and residents of former East Germany get about 10 percent less in pension payments. A 66-year-old man who ran a gas station in Oppach had to close his business as the European Union expanded to Eastern Europe and trucks filled up gas in the Czech Republic, where prices were lower. His pension of 400 euros ($470) a month is not enough to cover his debts. “I’ve lost all trust in the government,” he said.

The German election results suggest that voters feel left out by the political establishment rather than charmed by the far right. In the past, the far-left Die Linke was strong in eastern Germany. But the public wanted a political party that could stand against both Merkel’s moderate conservatives and the moderate liberals who don’t dream of change. Triggered by the refugee issue, they moved from the far left to far right.

After Korea’s presidential election, the old political games have returned even at the height of a nuclear crisis. Political parties have focused on defending their special interests, but if they don’t start competing to resolve the country’s problems — high youth unemployment, an aging population and worsening wealth disparities — they will face a political backlash.

Germany has nearly full employment, and Saxony has the highest economic growth rate among German states at 2.7 percent. But a revolt occurred nonetheless, and their situation is much better than Korea’s.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 30

*The author is a London correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

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