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Germany

Schröder’s Party Staying the Reform Course

Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens have reasserted they’re sticking to the reform course amid fears Chancellor Schröder, facing record lows in opinion poll ratings, could be slowing the pace of unpopular reforms.

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The German chancellor is under fire for stopping a nursing care reform.

Members of Germany’s Social Democrat-Greens ruling coalition were at pains this weekend to dispel the image they were floundering over crucial social and labor market reforms initiated by them.

The move followed controversial remarks by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder this week when he put the brakes on unpopular plans to overhaul Germany’s nursing care insurance system and said citizens’ capacity for limits for absorbing reforms had been reached.

Schröder’s announcement was preceded by controversy surrounding proposed new fees for doctor visits and unexpectedly poor poll ratings for the Social Democratic Party.

"Not turning away from reforms"

Aussenminister Joschka Fischer

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

On Sunday, Joschka Fischer (photo), the popular foreign minister, said Schröder’s remark did not mean a "turning away from the reform course." In an interview with German newspaper Bild am Sonntag Fischer said, "We have to be more careful that we don’t lose the support of the people and at the same time not waver from the course of renewal." He added, "at the same time we shouldn’t allow ourselves to dither."

Head of the Green parliamentary party, Katrin Göring-Eckardt also warned that the reform pace wouldn’t be allowed to slacken. "We’ve initiated brave reforms up to now," she said. She admitted that the reform pace in the past few months had been "very fast" and "had demanded much" from the people, but added the reforms were necessary. "We’re going to be in trouble without reforms at the latest by 2006," she said.

Even Schröder was at pains later to assure that his statement did not mean there would be a general freeze on reforms.

Poor opinion ratings for Social Democrats

But observers feel that Schröder’s scrapping of the nursing care reform -- proposed additional nursing care security fees of around €2.50 per month to be paid by people without children, but not by parents -- was a ploy aimed at wooing back voters angry over higher health care costs and labor market reforms implemented on January 1.

Schröder’s labor and social reforms known as "Agenda 2010" include a range of measures such as making it easier for companies to lay off workers to revive economic growth, slashing generous welfare benefits and reducing non-wage labor costs.

The chancellor has pushed through with the painful but necessary reforms amid stiff opposition from labor unions and from left-wing rebels within his own party. Though the reforms have been praised by economists and business leaders, they have proved unpopular with voters as seen by opinion poll lows of around 25 percent that have dogged Schröder’s Social Democrats all through last year.

A poll by the Allensbach polling institute showed only 14 percent of Germans support the government’s policies.

Fear of losing voters?

Media commentators also feel Schröder’s shooting down of the potentially unpopular nursing care reform proposal was meant not to antagonize voters further in a year when the government faces 14 regional, local and European elections later this year.

In an editorial this week, business daily Financial Times Deutschland wrote this week, "Gerhard Schröder stopped the old age care reform because he is terrified of the wrath of voters." The paper added, "It would be fatal if the chancellor became paralyzed by fear."

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