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Germany

Ex-SPD Leader to Speak at Monday Protests

After five years in political exile, former Social Democratic Party leader Oskar Lafontaine will return to the political stage Monday by attacking the economic reforms of his erstwhile partner, Chancellor Schröder.

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Oskar Lafontaine isn't making his former colleagues happy

The mass demonstrations against reforms in Germany have dominated the political debate in recent weeks, but they are expected to reach a fever pitch on Monday with the participation of Lafontaine, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party. Recently, Lafontaine has re-emerged from self-imposed political exile to become one of the most vociferous critics of the labor market reforms and welfare cuts championed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

When he joins the protests this week, he'll be the most prominent political figure in the Monday demonstration movement.

Tens of thousands are expected to participate in the protests. Most of the action is expected to center on the states formerly belonging to East Germany, where the unemployment rate remains staggeringly high. In economically depressed Saxony-Anhalt, demonstrations are planned in more than a dozen cities. Eleven protest marches have been registered in Thuringia and two marches are planned for Berlin. But the biggest event is expected in Leipzig, site of the 1989 Monday Demonstrations that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and where Lafontaine is expected to address the crowds Monday.

A thorn in the SPD's side

His presence has angered members of the SPD, who still see his sudden 1999 resignation as Schröder's finance minister and his recent and antagonistic return to politics as absolute betrayal. Rather than offering any reasons for quitting at the time, Lafontaine just wrote Schröder a note stating: "Dear Mr. Chancellor, I hereby resign as federal minister of finance. Yours sincerely, Oskar Lafontaine."

"Anyone who took leave in such an embarrassing way should just be humble and quiet," said Johannes Kahrs, an SPD politician. The deputy chairman of the SPD's parliamentary group, Michael Müller, openly warned Lafontaine that in pursuing "leftist politics" he should avoid agitating people, "otherwise they might swing to the right," he said.

In recent weeks, Lafontaine has emerged as an outspoken critic of the labor market reforms, and he's even threatened to join a leftist break-away party if Schröder doesn't abandon his current reform measures. Though Lafontaine holds little sway with Schröder's cabinet, SPD officials fear that if he leaves the party, he could take members of the party's left-wing faction with him.

But with turnout at last week's marches of less than half the 150,000 expected by organizers, it's hard to say whether Lafontaine is joining a movement that is growing or petering out. Politicians in both the government and opposition are hoping for the latter, since the protests are fueling the popularity of the the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's former Communists.

Montagsdemonstration in Leipzig

25,000 people march in Leipzig against planned labor market reforms

With a view to Monday's demonstrations, opposition leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union, expressed her understanding for the protests in eastern Germany. At the same time, she warned against abusing the Monday Demonstrations for political gain. "Many people have very big worries and fear," she said. Merkel also said the government needed to make more of an effort to listen to the people of eastern Germany.

Schröder defends proposals

For his part, Chancellor Schröder has called on the protesters to be open to dialog with the government. In a public television interview on Sunday night, Schröder warned protesters that they should be prepared to speak and not drown the chancellor out with whistles. At several appearances last week, Schröder was greeted with a chorus of boos and whistles and even a hail of eggs on two occasions.

Schröder also defended the labor market reforms that triggered the demonstration as well as recent government proposals aimed at reducing the pain of the reforms for individuals. Under the so-called Hartz IV reforms, the government plans to merge unemployment and welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed -- a move expected to dramatically reducing the government entitlement for many jobless Germans. To offset the lost money, the government has proposed jobs that would pay nominal wages but would not be calculated against a jobless person's welfare payments. The jobs could mean as much as €800 to €1,000 in additional money for the long-term unemployed receiving welfare benefits.

Critics have warned that the reforms threaten to push thousands of Germans into poverty. But on Monday, the German Association of Municipalities dismissed those claims as untrue. In a newspaper interview, the association's director, Gerd Landsberg, said that a long-term unemployed couple with two children would actually get more money each month after the reforms than they did before. He also said the reforms would improve the situation for young German workers who, for the first time, would have laws on the books requiring that jobs be created for them.

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