WHAT a confidence killer. Jochen Lessig, a leading east German politician in the city of Leipzig, says his girlfriend feels compelled to apologize to people for the fact that he is in politics.
``It doesn't matter what party you are in, politicians here are resented. People see us as the reason for all their problems,'' says Mr. Lessig, a founder of the democratic movement New Forum, which helped bring about the 1989 East German revolution.
With industry flat on its back and real unemployment running at about 37 percent in east Germany, it is no wonder that politicians have a bad name, and consequently, that few people choose to face voter criticism. (Official unemployment is 15.4 percent, but real unemployment includes those who are in state work programs, retraining programs, or early retirement.)
Yet even if conditions were better, the pool of qualified eastern politicians would still be no more than a puddle.
``Where should these native politicians come from? In 1989, the political system here imploded,'' says Lothar Tippach, Leipzig city council leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reformed Communists. Because of their past connection with the East German secret police, those with the most political experience are barred from politics.
THE dearth of politicians in Germany's east means that parties here may not be able to field enough candidates for next year's elections. In 1994, a staggering 19 elections will take place in Germany at the local, state, national, and European Community levels. And if, as expected, a greater proportion of east Germans than west Germans stay away from the polls, the easterners will lose seats in the federal parliament.
``If you can't mobilize the voters in east Germany, the influence of east Germany will decrease,'' says Hans-Jurgen Hoffmann, political analyst for the German polling organization Infas.
Not that east Germans have much political clout now.
Only a handful of native ``Ossie'' politicians spark nationwide name recognition. Three of the five east German states are headed by west German governors. The mayor of Leipzig, the region's most prosperous city, is a west German.
On the federal level, easterners make up a third of the parliament, but they remain ``back benchers.'' Only three east Germans belong to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 19-member Cabinet. The difficulty of finding qualified, untainted east Germans was made plain Sept. 13 when Mr. Kohl endorsed an eastern state minister, Steffen Heitmann, as his party's choice for the next president of Germany. His choice of the obscure Mr. Heitmann, labeled a nationalist, drew criticism from all sides.
Rainer Fornahl, Leipzig city council leader of the Social Democrats, is confident that time will work on the side of east German politicians. ``The competence of many people is growing, and sometime in the future you won't have this problem [of a lack of native politicians] anymore,'' he says.
Breaking through on the national level, however, will take much longer, Mr. Fornahl predicts. Simply put, he says, ``west German politicians don't want the competition.''