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25 years of German Unity: Political orientations still different in East Germany and West Germany

Press Release of September 9, 2015

Discrepancies primarily in party affiliation and voter turnout –attitudes toward the welfare state are converging – support for the Left Party remains marginal in the West

Twenty-five years after reunification, East and West Germans continue to show clear differences in their political preferences. This is the result of an analysis carried out by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). The investigation covers the years 1990 to 2014 and is based on the most recent data from the long-term Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study, collected by DIW Berlin in partnership with TNS Infratest Sozialforschung; official data from the Federal and State Election Officials; and data from the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS).

"Even though two East Germans—Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck—hold the top political positions in Germany, there only limited signs of unity in citizens’ political attitudes and their participation in the political process," explains Martin Kroh, Deputy Head of the SOEP at DIW Berlin, Professor of Political Science at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, and one of the authors of this study.

German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin)

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) is one of the leading economic research institutions in Germany. Its core mandates are applied economic research and economic policy advice as well as provision of research infrastructure. As an independent non-profit institution, DIW Berlin is committed to serving the common good. The institute was founded in 1925 as Institut für Konjunkturforschung (Institute for economic cycle research). Since 1982, the Research Infrastructure SOEP (German Socio-Economic Panel Study), a long-term study, is affiliated to DIW Berlin. The institute has been headquartered in Berlin since its founding. As a member of the Leibniz Society, DIW Berlin is predominantly publicly funded.

East Germans has fewer long-term affiliations to political parties

When it comes to interest in politics, no clear trend can be discerned: In most years, it turns out to be similarly high in both parts of the country. Statistically significant differences are evident, however, when it comes to the importance of political and societal commitment. While this of course played a major role for many people in East Germany at the time of reunification, personal commitment is still considered more important in the West.

The most significant differences between East and West Germany emerge when it comes to long-term loyalty to a specific party. "Although the population in East Germany was quite familiar with the political system of the West at the time of reunification, loyalty to particular parties remains significantly less pronounced in the East,“ says Kroh. The analyses show that party loyalty in West Germany is significantly higher than in it is in East Germany, although the gap is gradually decreasing. This is especially true with the younger generation—that is, individuals who were children or adolescents at the time of reunification.

Higher voter turnout in West Germany

Voter turnouts for almost all levels of elections reveal marked differences: In federal, parliamentary, and municipal elections, the turnout is almost always lower in East Germany than it is in West Germany. Voter turnout in federal elections stood consistently between three and eight percentage points lower in the East (excluding Berlin) than in the West. Of particular social concern is the historically low turnout in state elections: In 2014, well under 50 percent of eligible voters in Saxony and Brandenburg cast their ballots.

The bigger the gap in political preferences between East and West Germany, the more significant these differences in voter turnout become. "The relative strength of the Left Party, in particular, illustrates the differences in political views," says Ronny Freier, Assistant Professor at the Free University of Berlin and political economy expert at DIW Berlin, also an author of this study. While the Left was never able to establish itself as a major party in the West, is has long been a major party in East, which is evidenced by its consistently high popularity ratings in weekly voter polls.

East and West Germans both want better social benefits

The proportion of East German respondents who believe the system is unjust and want more government benefits is greater than that of West Germans. In 1991, roughly 85 percent of East Germans indicated that they believed the social differences to be unjust, while only 55 percent of West German respondents voiced this belief; a similar picture emerged regarding the question of whether economic benefits were unfairly distributed. Although this discrepancy is still important, the gap between East and West Germany with regard to this issue has been narrowing since the beginning of the last decade. "It is worth noting that after 2002—despite continuing differences—the attitudes of East and West Germans towards the welfare state are slowly beginning to converge," explain the authors.