Walking a fine line between cooperating in a government coalition and campaigning in state elections, Germany's Christian and Social Democrats are trying to score points by promoting better childcare opportunities.
Are Germany's children to become a political commodity?
For some years now, Germany has been gaining a reputation as a place where the idea of family is as much an anomaly than a normality. During Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's leadership, the ministry for family affairs made an attempt to bang the drum for increased child-friendliness. But for most observers, it never really seemed to amount to much more than a distant, discordant drone.
Now, with the new coalition comfortably installed in Berlin, both the Social Democrats and Angela Merkel's Conservatives appear to have decided that the promotion and support of family life and children in general is a key to success. The new Christian Democrat Family Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, set the bar high in an interview with mass-circulation Bild tabloid, when she called for the federal and state governments to make kindergartens available for free.
Minister for Family Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen
Ministry officials described von der Leyen's comments as a reaction to complaints from local authorities about plans make childcare costs tax-deductible.
"State and local politicians, who see fit to grumble, should make their own contribution to child-friendliness," she said. "I call upon them to be brave and set new priorities. Reduce kindergarten costs, or better still, dispense with them altogether."
Great idea, in theory
The general response has been that it is a nice thought which will never be more than that. Local authorities currently invest 13 billion euros ($17.7 billion) annually into childcare, with 20 percent of the overall cost covered by the fees from parents. Were those contributions reduced, or abolished outright, there would be less money to inject into increasing the number of kindergarten places available.
Social Democrat State Premiere for Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck
Kurt Beck, the Social Democratic state premier of the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate, told public broadcasters ARD and ZDF that he was not prepared to pass the financial buck to local and church authorities. He advised von der Leyen to pay for any improvements out of her own coffers rather than tell other people how to spend their money. Beck added that the issue of family and children was gaining importance.
On Monday, the SPD, which fears it is disappearing beneath the shadow of Merkel's growing strength, emerged from a two-day strategy review, touting a new-found commitment to family affairs. In a draft resolution, the Social Democrats set out the objectives of guaranteeing children a kindergarten place from the age of two, creating a total of 230,000 new places for children under the age of three and granting free kindergarten places for the year before school begins.
Parties gear up for state elections
Many observers view this new-found dedication to parents and potential parents as an SPD effort to sharpen its image while simultaneously distinguishing itself from the CDU ahead of three state elections in March. They will provide the first indication of voter sentiment since the federal ballot last September failed to produce a clear winner.
Angela Merkel's Conservatives are taking a family-friendly approach
The conservatives, who have adopted the party slogan "new fairness" for the upcoming polls, are campaigning hard on an agenda of social issues such as affordable child care and tax breaks for families. They are hoping to marginalize the SPD in the process. And although the CDU approach has set the cat among the pigeons in the ranks of the Social Democrats, former Defense Minister and SPD parliamentary party leader, Party Struck, has called for calm.
"I can understand that some people in my party are a little nervous, because the chancellor is receiving the credit for many things," he told Sunday's Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. "But I'm not worried. It's quite clear that the chancellor will reap the benefits at first."