How do you make sense of the dozens of parties entered in today's East German parliamentary elections? The answer, of course, is to look westward - to the political contest shaping up in Bonn. What happens today in East Germany is in a real sense the dress rehearsal for West German elections coming up in December. The results will have a direct effect on the pace of unification as well as the character of East Germany itself.Of the 24 parties on today's ballot, few have a chance of building real power in the new parliament. Many are remnants of the small, idealistic parties that sprang up last year and pulled the lever that opened East Germany for democracy. Significantly, most will remain small, for the immediate future belongs to those aligned with West Germany's Social Democratic Party and Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats.
It was with lightning speed that the momentum of opposition parties melted away as the fervor for reunification took over. So strong is that fervor that many East German citizens abandoned the old idealism in the quest for prosperity. With no Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel to lead them, the opposition groups remained splintered and weak. Their vision of a new, humane, democratized socialism evaporated.
East Germany proved fertile ground for West German parties, which swiftly orchestrated and financed the campaigns of indigenous groups and cultivated support for their own campaigns back in Bonn. In the ensuing chaos, a leader of the Neues Forum complained that West German parties had ``hijacked our campaign.' Indeed, the contest ceased to be East German.
Ironically, the election, which will determine how quickly reunification is to take place, will soon be overtaken by events. If the new parliament - East Germany's first independent democratic assembly since the early 1930s - opts to vote itself into the Federal Republic, it will essentially self-destruct. So also will the likable Hans Modrow, who set all this in motion but who, as a communist, will surely soon disappear from view. East Germans are like the breathless bride only too willing to give up the independence she never had a chance to taste. They have never reallyaddressed the questions that so consumed them just months ago.
The draw of opposition parties in today's elections will reveal whether their issues are still alive. If, as expected, the West German parties dominate the returns, they will also set the pace for federation. If the Christian Democrats' alliance prevails, Kohl's headlong rush to woo East Germany will not slacken until the two countries are one - which could be months away. In the process, East Germans may have reached out for, and tossed away, an identity that was once so central to their cause.