Merkel gets rough ride at east German rally

17th August 2005, Comments 0 comments

17 August 2005, COTTBUS, GERMANY - Angela Merkel, the German opposition's chancellor candidate, got a rough ride at a rally Tuesday in eastern Germany's rust belt - but she kept her cool amid jeers, whistles and boos.

17 August 2005

COTTBUS, GERMANY - Angela Merkel, the German opposition's chancellor candidate, got a rough ride at a rally Tuesday in eastern Germany's rust belt - but she kept her cool amid jeers, whistles and boos.

"Go home! Go home!" yelled protesters as Merkel appeared on a stage in front of the city's communist-era convention hall.

The campaign stop in Cottbus, a city of 100,000 which borders moonscape brown coal strip mines and suffers 20 per cent unemployment, was never going to be easy for Merkel - especially given the strength of left-wing parties in the region.

"I am 91 years old and have voted for the left since I was 16 - I won't vote for Merkel because she's a Christian Democrat," declared Klaus Hagedorn, who used his walker to come to the rally which was attended by about 5,000 people.

Kerstin Weidner, 42 and unemployed, said she was undecided, but ruled out casting her ballot either for Merkel or Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

"If Merkel is elected they will cut our jobless benefits even more," said Weidner, adding that even though Merkel hails from eastern Germany she had betrayed her roots and could no longer be seen as an 'Ossi', or east German.

As beer flowed and sausages sizzled on grills in the hot, sunny August weather, Merkel plunged into a sober, issues-oriented speech.

At first, the yells and whistles grew louder.

After a few minutes, Merkel paused, smiled and then turned to a group which had hoisted a banner backing Schroeder.

"Whistling won't solve Germany's problems," Merkel told them. "Do you know the government is running up EUR 40 billion of debt this year?"

Things quieted down somewhat.

"Now, I want to talk very seriously to you about jobs. We have 5 million unemployed in Germany," said the candidate.

Merkel told the crowd she knew cuts to jobless benefits, approved both by her opposition Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) and Schroeder's government, were tough.

But she drew applause by contrasting the higher amount of money still received by some unemployed in comparison to people working for lower-income jobs.

"We have to make sure that those working earn more than those who get benefits," said Merkel.

High German unemployment - the top issue in this bitterly fought campaign in the run-up to September 18 elections - was not because wages were too high, stressed Merkel.

The problem is that non-wage labour costs were pricing German workers out of the market, she argued. Employers must pick up the bill for half of health insurance costs and a series of other social welfare entitlements.

This was not the case in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands where such expenses were funded by general taxes, Merkel noted. In all three states the jobless rate is lower than in Germany and economic growth has been far better in past years.

So, asked Merkel, how do we solve this problem?

"State debts are high so we have to increase value added tax," she said to even louder boos and jeers.

Merkel said she understood there was no enthusiasm for this controversial move and admitted it would be far better to promise things like boosting child benefits in an election campaign.

"But we tell you and I tell you exactly what we are going to do: before the elections," Merkel said.

Germany's second big problem was demographic, with only half as many children being born now annually as were in 1960, she said.

Here Merkel won applause for her two-pronged approach to boosting Germany's birth-rate. First, the CDU/CSU plans to extend the EUR 8,000 annual tax exemption currently only for adults to also count for children. Second, it wants to cut state pension payments for people with children.

The biggest round of applause came when Merkel called for kicking out foreigners who preach hatred and said far more video cameras were needed in German cities, citing the example of how London police captured last month's second wave of would-be bombers thanks to pictures from closed circuit TV.

It was unclear how many people Merkel's half-hour speech persuaded.

"She's tough, she's giving Schroeder a run for his money and she knows her stuff," said Klaus Stein, aged 65.

But Margeret Schwarz, 40, remained unconvinced.

"I haven't decided whom I will vote for. But probably not Merkel," said Schwarz.

Merkel's CDU/CSU leads Schroeder's SPD in polls but her party has declined in past weeks after a series of gaffes including Bavarian CSU premier Edmund Stoiber's claim that east Germans were "frustrated", which drew anger in the economically depressed region.

The CDU/CSU with its designated Free Democratic Party (FDP) partner, is at between 48 per cent and 53 per cent in Germany's top six opinion polls.

Schroeder's SPD alliance with the Greens is at 34 per cent to 38 per cent.

Some analysts predict a newly founded Left Party, which groups former East Germany's revamped communists and a western German leftist movement, may keep Merkel from winning a majority.

That could force her into a 'grand coalition' with Schroeder's SPD - the same alliance that governed Germany from 1966 to 1969 and did a good job with economic and tax reform.


Subject: German news

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