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Germany

Getting the Gray Vote

Senior citizens make up a third of the German electorate and are being wooed by all the parties. But when it comes to one of the issues that concerns them -- pensions -- they don't think any one party has the answers.

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A powerful target group

The elderly are an important target group in September's election, but none of the parties have easy answers for the issues they're most concerned about -- pensions and the rising cost of health care and medication.

The current government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens introduced tough reforms which have also affected pensioners, but given Germany's massive public debt, the opposition parties would also have to make cutbacks if they came to power.

Raising the retirement age

Senioren auf einer Parkbank diskutieren

The discussion about the difficulty in funding Germany's pension system in future again took center stage this week following a suggestion by the president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Klaus F. Zimmermann, to raise the age of retirement to 70 from its current 65.

Political parties, unions and pension insurers have all heaped criticism on the idea. Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement called Zimmermann's suggestion "infeasible and excessive." He said he supports the suggestion made by a special government commission of experts, which would see the retirement age gradually raised to 67.

Such suggestions have caused some older SPD supporters to switch their allegiance to the Left Party, the new alliance of the reformed communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and left-wing groups. Two-thirds of Left Party members are over 60. The senior citizens' working groups meet regularly and carry authority. Their main recruits are elderly people in eastern Germany.

Left Party gaining senior support

Wahlparteitag der PDS jetzt Die Linkspartei

The Left Party is attracting senior voters

"I believe that a very specific problem for older people in the East is that not only do they have the impression that the contributions they have made to society are not valued, but there is also proof that it is so," said Ernst Bienert of the Left Party's Senior Citizens Group.

Seniors who remain loyal to the SPD are also hitting the campaign trail, in part to refute the notion that only the SPD is to blame for the pensions crisis and other social crises facing the country.

"All of these developments, which resulted from compromises made during the committee stage, were frequently laid at the door of the SPD, and we have to explain that and tell people how it really happened," said Hermann Bokelmann of the SPD's 60-plus group.

There has been no talk of cutting pensions in the election campaigns as yet, but it's clear that future generations of pensioners will receive barely more than the level of social welfare from the government. In comparison to those future generations, today's pensioners are well-off. Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that most pensioners want to see a change in government.

Up to 60 percent plan to vote for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), even though they don't believe that leader Angela Merkel has the answers to their problems.

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