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Opinion: The German Reform Support Gap

Most Germans admit their country needs painful economic and welfare reforms, but very few seem willing to support those politicians daring enough to implement them. Unfortunately, that's likely to prolong the misery.


Conservative leaders Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber waiving goodbye to unpopular reforms.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats are wallowing at all-time lows in opinion polls and the party's membership rolls continue to shrink dramatically each month. The problem? Schröder's center-left coalition finally got serious last year about implementing cuts to Germany's generous yet untenable welfare system. The Social Democrats (SPD) and their partners, the Greens, also began to loosen restrictive labor laws in an effort to lower the country's chronically high unemployment.

Although most economists consider the reforms modest at best, the effect has been sobering. The SPD has experienced a slow meltdown since the party's leftwing base accused Schröder of pursing a course contrary to the party's roots. The reform policies have also been blamed for causing the SPD to lose a number of regional and state elections including the recent rout in Hamburg -- traditionally a bastion of Social Democratic support.

The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) came away with a crushing absolute majority in Hamburg, in no little part due to widespread discontent with the reform policies being made by the federal government in Berlin. Schröder has said he will stay the course to get Europe's largest economy back on track, but he was recently forced to give up the SPD chairmanship in an effort to appease the party faithful. Unless the reforms start to show results, the governing coalition will have little incentive to press forward with even more painful measures.

CDU hubris?

As any opposition party would, the CDU has been more than happy to tap public displeasure with the chancellor and his government. However, the hubris that comes with having a commanding lead in opinion polls month after month may be starting to show.

Over the weekend, leaders from the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU met to discuss their own platform for reforms. At first CDU boss Angela Merkel and CSU chief Edmund Stoiber came up with proposals much more radical than anything the Social Democrats-Greens coalition is pushing. They wanted to eliminate job-protection measures for the first four years of employment, cut unemployment benefits and scale back the importance of industry-wide wage agreements.

But then came the howls of protest from inside the conservatives' own ranks.

One CDU man dubbed the proposals "a resurrection program for the SPD," rightly recognizing that if the public could turn on the Social Democrats over their reforms, it could certainly turn on the opposition if it offered even harder measures. The conservatives swiftly scrapped the most controversial parts of their plans.

Merkel and Stoiber on Monday still tried to sell their ideas as "a clear alternative to the lacking will for reform" in Schröder's coalition. But the message is clear: the conservatives are unlikely to do anything to jeopardize their standing with voters so long as the government does their dirty work for them by pushing ahead with necessary welfare cuts and labor market reforms.

Sadly, that may not be the case. The first inclination of SPD and Greens politicians was to call the plans proof that the conservatives were cold-blooded, neoliberals beyond the mainstream of German politics. "Now Merkel and Stoiber have shown their true face," Greens parliamentary leader Krista Sager told the Berliner Zeitung. And so long as the conservatives continue to dominate elections and stay high in opinion polls, the temptation for Social Democratic and Green politicians to distance themselves from hard reforms will grow.

Deutschland unter alles

Still, Germany desperately needs to press forward with its economic and social overhaul. As the British weekly newsmagazine The Economist pointed out in its latest issue, were Germany stripped out of European Union GDP calculations, the bloc's growth would no longer lag behind that of the United States. Bold and unpopular measures will be required to once again make Germany Europe's economic motor.

Horst Köhler, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was recently picked to be a candidate for Germany's largely ceremonial presidency. Due to the peculiarities of the country's political system he is all but assured to be elected to office by a conservative-liberal alliance this May. He has said he would like to be a "reform president" for Germany.

We wish him luck. With the government and opposition unable and unwilling to work together on overhauling the country, Germany will have ample need of a president advocating more courageous economic and social reforms.

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