Schroeder faces wave ofanti-reform protests
16 August 2004 , BERLIN - Protest marches were planned in more than 150 cities and towns throughout Germany Monday in what analysts termed a key turning point in the national debate over German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's controversial reform of unemployment benefits. Coming a week after 40,000 persons marched against the reforms in eastern Germany, Monday's protests were planned to include cities in western Germany such as Cologne, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. And for the first time in the new wave of weekl
16 August 2004
BERLIN - Protest marches were planned in more than 150 cities and towns throughout Germany Monday in what analysts termed a key turning point in the national debate over German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's controversial reform of unemployment benefits.
Coming a week after 40,000 persons marched against the reforms in eastern Germany, Monday's protests were planned to include cities in western Germany such as Cologne, Dusseldorf and Hamburg.
And for the first time in the new wave of weekly Monday evening marchers, protests were planned in Berlin as well.
The largest marches and rallies were planned in cities throughout eastern Germany Monday afternoon and evening - in a controversial revival of 1989 marches that brought down the East German communist regime.
By midday Monday some 500 protesters had taken to the streets Weissenfels in eastern Germany, marching under the banner "We are the People", which was the rallying call of anti-communist regime protest marches on Monday evenings 15 years ago.
Organizers predicted tens of thousands of people would take part in protest marches in scores of other cities in eastern Germany.
In eastern Germany unemployment is running twice the national rate of 10.5 percent, and in many places it is nearly 50 percent.
However, Monday's protests came after Schroeder's cabinet moved to ease the unemployment benefits cuts. Last Wednesday, Schroeder ordered ministers back from vacation for an emergency cabinet session to water down the law, dubbed "Hartz IV" after Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz who is its architect.
Changes to exemptions and a one-off payment in January are minor and do not alter the backbone of the law - but they will cost the government up to EUR 800 million.
Analysts were closely watching the turnout for Monday's marches as an indication whether public outrage at the Schroeder's government's unpopular economic and social reforms was waning - or perhaps growing more acute.
"Monday will show which direction the protests are going to take," a political analyst told Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper. "I expect there will be more people out on the streets than there were last week, but I do not expect a dramatic increase. But if there is a big increase, then Schroeder's political survival is at stake."
Schroeder's centre-left government - battling record opinion poll lows as Germany slowly shakes off three years of economic stagnation - clearly hopes such tinkering with the jobless benefits law will defuse further protests.
There is concern however among some observers that by giving in so swiftly to protests the government may fuel bigger demonstrations against the bill, which slashes payments for the long-term unemployed and introduce means testing for the first time in Germany.
Protest organisers and trade unions meanwhile said the government climbdown was merely an initial victory in the struggle against the unpopular bill.
"The protests will continue ... we want to get rid of Hartz IV," declared Andreas Erholdt, organiser of a demonstration last Monday in the eastern German city of Magdeburg.
Harald Reutter, spokesman for public sector union Verdi said union members were now gunning for a clause making it hard for the unemployed to turn down jobs deemed to be lower than those they previously held.
"We have to stick to our course on the really difficult issues," said Reutter.
Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement, a staunch supporter of reform, has strongly criticized continuing demonstrations and insisted they would not influence the government.
"Pressure from the street plays absolutely no role," he said.
The government predicts the economy will grow between 1.5 percent and 2 percent this year and Clement said the higher figure was now far more likely.
Subject: German news