History of Europe

Last East German People's Chamber:Democracy learns to walk

In March 1990 the first and last democratic elections to the People's Chamber took place. The participation set an exclamation mark with 93 percent. The surprising result meant the end of the GDR.

by Kathrin Matern and Siv Stippekohl

On the morning of March 18, 1990, voters queue in front of the polling station in Neuhaus an der Elbe.

March 18, 1990:30 years ago, the first democratic, free and at the same time last Volkskammer election took place in the GDR. What is elected - for the first time in the history of the GDR without a single list - is perhaps the most unusual parliament of all time. "The most important thing was that the election took place," says Markus Meckel, at the time one of 400 freely, directly and secretly elected members of parliament. The north of the GDR has more than 40 parliamentarians in this special People's Chamber, who at the time were mostly inexperienced political newcomers - but later they are to become Federal President, Prime Minister, Minister, District Administrator or Member of the Bundestag, such as Joachim Gauck, Harald Ringstorff, Lorenz Caffier, Till Backhaus or Kerstin Kassner.

The social democrat Markus Meckel was a pastor at the Müritz in Vipperow in the 1980s. For him, the March 1990 election "is the sign of the peaceful revolution. We wanted democracy and we achieved it." The pressure of the masses on the streets in the autumn of 1989 broke the power monopoly of the Socialist Unity Party and led to the need to negotiate with the citizens' movements at a round table.

"For unity there had to be a democratic GDR"

It is important for him to remember this point, because it is often wrongly assumed that the West organized German unity without further ado by opening the border. That wasn't the case. At the round table, the new elections in the GDR were decided in the first session on December 7, 1989, and the prerequisites for the ballot were created in just a few weeks.

This People's Chamber election was an important sign of the sovereignty and also the "upright walk" of the East Germans into unity, says Markus Meckel: "March 18, the free election, is the clear message that there had to be a democratic GDR for unification. A democratically elected government and a parliament that had to conduct the necessary negotiations. And in this respect, the clear task was that clear mandate in the election:You have to negotiate German unity."

Election campaign help from the West

More than 20 parties compete in the 1990 Volkskammer elections.

The election is preceded by an election campaign the likes of which the citizens of the GDR have never seen before:the parties from the West pump a lot of money, material and, above all, their prominent personnel in the East into the election campaign. Well-known politicians and heads of the western parties are on the road as campaign workers for their sister parties in the GDR. The historian Ilko-Sacha Kowlczuk says:"The civil rights activists who advocated free elections had no structures, no newspapers, no offices, no money." Apart from their moral credibility, they would have had nothing to throw at it.

Everyone knew Helmut Kohl - hardly anyone knew Lothar de Maizière

The then Chancellor Helmut Kohl promoted the CDU and its partners during the election campaign.

The then CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl promoted the "Alliance for Germany" - the name of the conservative electoral alliance made up of the CDU East, Democratic Awakening and the German Social Union. "Never again socialism" is the title of the Alliance's appeal. During the election campaign, Kohl promises prosperity for everyone.

Markus Meckel remembers a memorable scene from the election campaign, when a couple approached former Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt at an event to say to him:Normally they would vote for the Social Democrats, but unfortunately it wasn't possible this time because the others had the money . Historian Kowalczuk says East German politicians had little influence on the outcome of the election. Everyone knew Helmut Kohl, but hardly anyone knew Lothar de Maizière.

Surprising result

Election Sunday was the warmest March 18 since weather records began. Temperatures exceeded 20 degrees almost everywhere, and many voters came in T-shirts. At the end of the day, voter turnout is a staggering 93.4 percent -- the only thing that comes as no surprise, according to historian Kowalczuk. However, the poor performance of the Social Democrats is astounding. The SPD was well ahead in all polls, but in the end the "Alliance for Germany" was the clear winner with more than 40 percent of the votes, while the SPD only got 21.9 percent. The forecasts, which even an absolute majority of the SPD had predicted, were based only on telephone surveys, but many GDR citizens did not have a telephone at all. It was not possible to fall back on comparative figures, demoscopy in the GDR:none.

Plebiscite with a long-term effect

Historian Kowalczuk says the vote was a kind of plebiscite with long-term effects. The "secret winner of this election" was particularly surprising:the SED successor party, the PDS, with 16.4 percent of the vote. The election result for the civil rights movement in the GDR was a real setback:Alliance 90, which brought together the citizens' groups New Forum, Democracy Now and the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights, achieved just 2.9 percent. But this People's Chamber election does not have a percentage hurdle, so that in the end twelve MPs from Alliance 90 will also move into the new parliament.

A temporary parliament

Historian Kowalczuk has observed that it is precisely these deputies who ensure a special tone in the People's Chamber. Suddenly there are civil rights activists who are discussing less strategically, but rather in a topic-oriented and grassroots-democratic manner. "Bonners were amazed" at this unusual style of politics, he says.

However, there is not much time to get used to it. In the only six months of its term of office, the last People's Chamber of the GDR met exactly 38 times and passed more than 160 laws. It also passes over 90 resolutions. Among other things, on August 23, 1990 perhaps the most important for the future of all people in the GDR:the decision on the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany according to Article 23 of the Basic Law.

The issue of the German-Polish border

Markus Meckel was Minister for Foreign Affairs in the last GDR government and immediately represented the GDR in the two-plus-four negotiations between the GDR, the FRG and the former occupying powers. There are conflicts and negotiations are not always treated with respect and on an equal footing, as he recalls:"The dispute with the federal government was when we would recognize the German-Polish border and how. Kohl didn't want that. He wanted to postpone this decision. We were important how the united Germany will appear in this world in the future."

"A place in German history - despite all weaknesses"

Meckel stayed in office for only 130 days and laughs today:politicians have now been granted a grace period of 100 days. "This government, which was only in power for a few months, has a place in German history, despite all the weaknesses that this government really had," says Meckel in retrospect.

The People's Chamber met for the last time on October 2, 1990 - and paved the way for German unity. As a democratically legitimized, sovereign negotiating partner, as the former MP Meckel emphasizes - and thus also tells of the "upright walk of the East Germans".