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Germany

Schröder Rejects Calls to Soften Reforms

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Saturday defended his reform course at a regional party congress of his Social Democrats, rejecting calls that the government's welfare cuts were jeopardizing the party's future.

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Schröder hopes the SPD will applaud Müntefering.

Speaking at a regional Social Democrat (SPD) congress in Bochum in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Schröder said he knew reforms to Germany's social security system were "painful," but contended the party was "on the right path."

"It's has been worthwhile to undertake and support these policies and it will continue to be worthwhile," Schröder said in a speech to 450 party delegates. "I ask you to help make them work."

The SPD has wallowed near all-time lows in opinion polls for months as the government attempts to overhaul Germany's creaky welfare system and rigid labor market. Facing the party faithful in North Rhine-Westphalia -- long a bastion of support for the SPD -- Schröder's appearance in Bochum is likely to be seen as a litmus test of his decision last week to step down as SPD party chairman.

Schröder is thought to have made the move to appease internal party critics unhappy with the direction of the government's reforms. However, instead of quelling the discontentment with the change at the top of the SPD, calls from the left are growing louder for the Berlin to change tack and rectify what they see as socially-unbalanced reforms.

Pressure from the left

Members of both the SPD and the Greens -- Schröder's junior coalition member -- are urging a rethink of the chancellor's so-called "Agenda 2010" package of social cuts and labor reforms.

Many in the SPD want to ease the burden on ordinary people who are now left paying more for health services and making do with reduced unemployment and social benefits. The Greens are pushing for a reintroduction of the wealth tax that will see richer people paying more into the government's coffers. Both initiatives have been generally backed by the country's trade unions.

"The German unions will apply an incredible amount of pressure to ensure the reform process in the future heads in a different direction," Michael Sommer, head of the German Trade Union Federation, told Die Welt newspaper on Saturday.

But Schröder's designated successor as SPD party chairman, Franz Müntefering, in Bochum affirmed his intention to stay the government's reform course, saying there was no alternative to pressing ahead with Schröder's Agenda 2010.

"We are in total agreement on all points," said Müntefering, who is expected to confirmed as chairman on March 21 at a special party congress. "I would never lead the party against the government."

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