FEATURE-West Germans feel pinch before regional vote

By Dave Graham

WUPPERTAL, Germany, April 25 (BestGrowthStock) – Wuppertal’s theatre
was a beacon of hope for a new age of creativity when built in
West Germany’s post-war boom. Today it is in trouble, a symbol
of the bankruptcy threatening cities in Germany’s biggest state.

North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), home to more than one in five
Germans, holds a state election on May 9 which is increasingly
overshadowed by debt worries that could create serious problems
for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right government.

Merkel’s coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and
pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) must hold NRW to retain the
majority in the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament) they need
to carry out planned tax cuts and health service reforms.

However, with towns and cities forming the backbone of its
industrial heartland sinking deeper and deeper into the red,
voters and lawmakers on both sides of the political divide say
Germany has all but exhausted room to manoeuvre fiscally.

“We’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg,” said Gerd
Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University. “Behind
municipal finances is the whole question of federal policy.”

Growing discontent about west German financial aid to former
East Germany, population decline and Europe’s economic woes have
fed political disillusionment that could hobble Merkel’s
government and deepen splits between Berlin and the regions.

Wuppertal and North Rhine-Westphalia as a whole have
traditionally backed the opposition Social Democrats (SPD).

Thanks to a big drop in SPD support in 2005, the city for
the first time returned only CDU deputies to the state
parliament, making it an important battleground.

Famed for a 110-year-old suspended monorail train and the
mass production of drug Aspirin, Wuppertal was home to German
choreographer Pina Bausch, who made her name working in the
city’s opera house and its theatre, the Kleines Schauspielhaus.

When it opened in 1966, the theatre was the scene of a
famous rallying cry for the arts delivered by writer Heinrich
Boell, a Nobel prize winner whose works helped shape the
collective conscience of post-war West Germany.

But due to mounting debts, the city council has proposed
closing the building, prompting a mass protest by theatres
across Germany last month and attacks from opposition
politicians.

SHAME

Most polls show neither the governing coalition of CDU-FDP,
nor a combination of the SPD and their chosen partners the
Greens will muster enough votes to form a majority in NRW.

However, a weekend voter survey for the first time gave an
SPD-Greens alliance just enough support to govern the state. A
clear result may depend on whether the Left Party, a far-left
grouping, clears the five percent hurdle to enter parliament.

If the CDU-FDP partnership cannot hold NRW, many new laws
will need backing by opposition parties. That would slow down a
legislative process that has been widely condemned as unwieldy
since Merkel’s second administration took office last autumn.

Recognising the importance of constituencies like Wuppertal,
Merkel and NRW state premier Juergen Ruettgers will jointly kick
off the final phase of the campaign in a rally there on May 5.

However, financial constraints mean politicians can offer
voters scant relief, putting the onus on cash-strapped cities to
raise charges on public services, eating into consumer spending.

A new law will force the federal government to consolidate
budgets sharply from 2011, while NRW’s state government itself
has to issue a record 27 billion euros of debt this year.

Underlining a growing split between the federal government
and regional interests, both the SPD and CDU in the state accuse
Berlin of eroding the tax base of municipal authorities while
saddling them with more and more things to pay for.

So worried are Wuppertal and other NRW cities about their
finances that 19 of them have forged a bipartisan initiative
called “Raus aus den Schulden” (“Let’s get out of debt)”.

According to the initiative, Wuppertal’s total debt level
per capita was just under 1,600 euros in 2000. Over the past
decade, the figure has more than tripled to some 5,300 euros.

The numbers are no mere abstraction on the city’s streets.

Surrounded by discount stores in Wuppertal’s pedestrian
shopping area, 49-year-old Sabine McErlean said sorting out
local finances was the most important issue in the NRW vote.

“I am ashamed of the mess this place is in. I can hardly
bear showing it to my friends from southern Germany,” she said.

SLIPPERY SLOPE

Wuppertal and other west German towns must continue
contributing to the redevelopment of ex-East Germany until 2019,
even though officials say the city may be insolvent by 2012 —
putting its finances in the hands of unelected bureaucrats.

Western resentment about the eastern “solidarity charge” has
spilled over into the election campaign, giving Merkel a new
headache as the 20th anniversary of German reunification nears.

“A city like Wuppertal can’t be made to slip further and
further into debt to pay the solidarity charge,” said Peter
Jung, Wuppertal’s CDU mayor. “It’s right to have solidarity
among cities, but it cannot be about points of the compass.”

Cities like Wuppertal, whose population has dipped to some
350,000 from over 400,000 in the 1960s, also struggle to
maintain infrastructure designed for more people than it serves.

For now, said Christian von Treskow, artistic director of
Wuppertal’s theatre, cultural institutions are bearing the brunt
of the cutbacks. This could prove “a slippery slope”, he said.

“If Wuppertal falls, theatres will close nationwide,” he
said. “Schiller always said theatre was a moral institution.
After World War Two it was: it forced us to confront the past.
If we lose that, society may begin to decay too.”
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

FEATURE-West Germans feel pinch before regional vote