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German election: SPD's Martin Schulz doubles down on social reform

In his last major TV appearance before the German election, Social Democrats leader Martin Schulz has warned that Merkel's conservatives could erode social support systems. The center-left SPD is trailing in polls.

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), has doubled down on social reform policies in a last-ditch effort to boost his election polls during a public television town hall-style exchange.

On Monday evening, Schulz faced the same conditions as Chancellor Angela Merkel did a week ago in the so-called Wahlarena (election arena), meeting with intense questioning during his last major television appearance before the election on Sunday.

Schulz attempted to distance himself from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, and committed himself to a 100-day social reform program if his SPD party is elected to power. The SPD, currently in a coalition with the CDU and its sister CSU party, is trailing in second place in election polls.

Schulz focused on pensions, rent controls and nursing care and warned that a possible coalition between Merkel's CDU, the CSU and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) would erode social support structures.

Read more: What you need to know about Germany's political parties

Rent controls

A woman from Darmstadt complained to Schulz that despite she and her husband both working in academia, they could not afford a house for their family of four in the booming Rhine-Main area.

"This is one of the most dramatic developments in Germany," Schulz responded. "People are living in hardship." He said the SPD had tried to strengthen rent controls introduced in 2015, but that the CDU and Merkel had blocked their efforts. He warned that under a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition the situation would get worse.

Rising rents are "one of the most virulent problems," he said. He conceded that the SPD's previous attempts to slow the growth of rents had met with limited success due to exceptions and legal loopholes, but added that in the event of an SPD victory he would introduce a more effective policy.

Read more: Child poverty still rising in Germany, official report shows

Fiscal debt

Schulz said the SPD would continue Merkel's regime of fiscal austerity. "I would like to be somewhere in four years where we have less debt," he said. 

But, he added, it was equally important to invest in the future. "If we do not invest, we do not grow. And if we do not grow, we have no revenue to pay off out debts."

Read more: Angela Merkel has no vision for the future says Martin Schulz

Consumer rights

Schulz said he intended to strengthen consumers' right to sue companies, using the example of diesel drivers being able to sue the Volkswagen Group following the diesel scandal, known as Dieselgate. He said this was sharply different to the CDU policy as such efforts have so far been blocked by courts.

Read more: Dieselgate forces German carmakers to rethink their future

Migrant integration

On integration, Schulz called for a tough stance to be taken in some cases. "Not everyone is able to integrate." There are also some "strange characters" among immigrants.

He said there was no place in Germany for anyone who preaches hatred, while criminals would be sent back to their homeland. He said language, work and friends were the keys to integration. "That's the way we should do it."

Read more: Martin Schulz wants to curb migration

Watch video 02:50

German parties clash in foreign policy debate

NATO

Once again, Schulz spoke sharply in opposition to US demands that Germany pay more to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Allocating 2 percent of the gross domestic product to military spending would mean "investing 25 to 30 billion euros [$35 billion] more in armaments each year," warned Schulz. He criticized the promises made by Merkel, instead calling for more disarmament and arms reduction.

Read more: German political parties - where do they stand on foreign policy and security?

Aged care

Merkel was criticized last week for her response to old age nursing care, something Schulz seized upon.

"In nursing care for the elderly, human dignity is often trampled underfoot, and there is a dramatic shortage of personnel and structural problems. With me as chancellor, there will be a new start in nursing care," he promised.

Pension reform

When asked by a mother of six from the eastern Ore Mountain region about her old-age pension, Schulz insisted there were great differences between him and the chancellor in pension policy.

"If Mrs. Merkel succeeds, pensions will continue to fall ... contributions will rise and we will be forced to work until we are 70," he said. According to Schulz, the CDU did not see any need for change on pension issues. He promised that people who had contributed to pension funds for 35 years or more would receive a pension at least 10 percent above the base rate.

Read more: Can new EU-wide pension help savers dodge retirement crisis?

Childcare

When asked about the compatibility of family and work, Schulz said he would grant relief to parents by offering more child care facilities and the gradual abolition of daycare fees. He promised that the SPD would invest an additional 12 billion euros in education.

Read more: Family policy becomes new German election battleground

aw/cmk (AFP, dpa)

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