East German anti-reformprotests gain strength
10 August 2004 , LEIPZIG - Thousands took to the streets in cities throughout eastern Germany Monday evening in protest against unemployment reform measures - in a controversial revival of 1989 marches that brought down the East German communist regime. In Magdeburg alone, some 10,000 persons marched and held vigils. There and in Leipzig and elsewhere, the protest marches were held under the banner "We are the people", which was the rallying call of anti-communist regime protest marches on Monday evenings
10 August 2004
LEIPZIG - Thousands took to the streets in cities throughout eastern Germany Monday evening in protest against unemployment reform measures - in a controversial revival of 1989 marches that brought down the East German communist regime.
In Magdeburg alone, some 10,000 persons marched and held vigils. There and in Leipzig and elsewhere, the protest marches were held under the banner "We are the people", which was the rallying call of anti-communist regime protest marches on Monday evenings 15 years ago.
In Leipzig, nearly 2,000 people marched under banners calling for the end of economic reforms and for the resignation of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
At issue are plans to cut unemployment benefits for persons who have been jobless for more than a year. In many areas of economically hard-hit eastern Germany, widescale unemployment is chronic.
National television commentators said the unpopular Schroeder reforms had tapped into long-held bitter resentment by people in eastern Germany against "the capitalist west".
"For years, the privileged elite of the reformed Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) could afford to be opposed to every policy in unified Germany," said ZDF correspondent Giselher Suhr, reporting live from the protest in Magdeburg.
"Now for the first time we are seeing common people of all strata join the protest against what they see as a sell-out of themselves and their region," he added. "People here believe they have been sold down the river and, for once, they are buying the polemic of the former Communists."
In eastern Germany unemployment is running twice the national rate of 10.5 per cent, and in many places it is nearly 50 per cent.
But the new weekly marches have come in for criticism from key organizers of the 1989 anti-regime marches.
"In those days we were marching in pursuit of liberty, but now people are marching in pursuit of money," said Antje Hermenau, a Greens party member of parliament who was a founding member in 1989 of the Round Table of anti-regime activists in then-East Germany.
She was not the only anti-regime figure condemning the new wave of protest marches.
"The current economic reforms are vital to restructuring the economy, particularly in eastern Germany," said Reverend Christian Fuehrer, pastor at Leipzig's St Nicholas Lutheran Church.
"To equate the federal government of unified Germany with the east German communist regime is wholly incomprehensible to me," said Fuehrer, who like many eastern German church leaders, had actively supported peaceful efforts to bring down the regime.
Even so, Reverend Fuehrer marched with protesters Monday evening, saying, "They have legitimate complaints against a government that has ignored their plight."
Marchers in Leipzig and other cities in eastern Germany have vowed to continue their protests against reforms aimed at reducing government spending.
Schroeder faced growing protests Monday over cuts to jobless benefits with left-wingers ratcheting up pressure through demonstrations and an arch-enemy in his own SPD threatening to create a new German leftist party.
Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) are stuck at historic opinion poll lows in part because government tax, welfare and especially unemployment cuts have alienated many traditional left-wing voters.
A possibly more dangerous challenge to Schroeder has also come from former SPD party leader and German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine.
Lafontaine on Monday evening rejected criticism of him from the party faithful as being a "renegade".
"I am not the renegade," he told RTL Television. "It is the Social Democrats themselves who have reneged on party policies to the party faithful, who are deserting them in droves. I represent the true values of the SPD, and am in no way a renegade."
Once described by a British newspaper as "the most dangerous man in Europe," the anti-globalist Lafontaine has repeated calls for Schroeder to resign.
But this time the ambitious Lafontaine backed up his demand by announcing he would back plans for a new leftist party in German general elections in 2006 if Schroeder refused to cancel the reforms.
"Current policies have robbed the SPD of its soul," said Lafontaine in an interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel, adding that he would never give up "socialism".
Lafontaine, who remains a popular and eloquent figurehead for the German left, accused Schroeder of presiding over the biggest rollback of the welfare state since 1945 and of deploying far too many German troops abroad.
The attacks come at a bad time for Schroeder.
His SPD has been stuck at around 25 percent in opinion polls all year while the main conservative opposition is between 45 and 50 percent.
Analysts predict that a new left-wing party - if led by a high profile politician like Lafontaine - would rake in 15 to 20 percent of the vote in the next election.
This could potentially make it the kingmaker for any future left-of-centre German government given that coalitions have been the rule in the postwar era.
Subject: German news