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Germany: Election Campaign Focuses On Domestic Issues

Berlin, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Campaigning for Germany's coming general election (on Sunday, Sept. 27) is focused almost entirely on domestic problems, with foreign policy playing only a small role.

The top priority for all the major parties is unemployment. With four million jobless -- more than 10 per cent of the workforce -- unemployment has hit the highest level since the war. The number of jobless dropped slightly in recent months but the basic situation has not improved. The other priority issues are tax and social policy reforms, refugee policy, crime, and environment.

A political analyst, Dieter Mller, says foreign policy has played only a minor role in the election campaign because all major parties accept present policies. "There's common support for NATO, for U.N. attempts to resolve crisis situations like Bosnia and for the European Union," he says. "No matter what Government is formed after Sunday's elections the basic elements of Germany's foreign policy will remain as they are now."

The major parties support the eastward expansion of the EU. But both the governing Christian Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats want to delay some benefits for new members for about 10 years. Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schroeder says this applies particularly to the right of workers to move freely from one country to another in search of better jobs. The SPD and the governing Christian Democrats are equally worried that an influx of cheap labor from Central Europe could worsen the unemployment crisis in Germany.

There is little agreement among the political parties on most domestic problems. Government and opposition have different ideas on how to find new jobs. All acknowledge some changes are essential to the present system, under which workers have relatively high wages, long annual holidays and generous sick benefits -- thus driving up the cost of hiring labor. But there is no agreement on how to do so.

Efforts by the Kohl government to reform the system led to a wave of strikes by industrial workers. The opposition Social Democrats have promised to reverse some of the government's reforms if they come to power. But the Social Democrats have not made clear what steps they would take themselves. SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder has proposed a vague agreement between government, industry and labor unions to create an "Alliance for Jobs" which would agree on a common approach.

Most parties agree tax reform is essential to changing the system but there are wide differences on what sort of reform is needed. The Government has focused on lowering the top rate of income tax while increasing indirect taxes. Opposition parties and the labor unions claim the Government proposals would help the wealthy at the expense of the workers. The debate sharpened after opposition claims that tax benefits already enjoyed by the wealthy allowed some rich individuals to pay almost no tax.

The Greens environmental party has created an uproar by proposing stiff increases in gasoline taxes. Political analyst Dieter Mller describes their proposals as "political suicide in a country obsessed with cars." The Greens have seen their support in opinion polls drop from 12 per cent last year to less than six per cent now.

Pensions have become part of the struggle to improve the economy. It's a question of whether the individual should take more responsibility for his retirement pay or whether the Government should continue to have most responsibility. The problem is that ever-fewer workers are paying into the pension fund while more people are

living longer and taking money out.

The Government created an uproar by proposing cuts in old age pensions to enable the monthly contribution by workers to remain stable. It also wants to cut pensions for widows and orphans. The opposition Social Democrats have said they will reverse the Government measures. They have a basketful of measures to raise the needed funds by other means but many commentators are skeptical as to whether they would work.

Helmut Kohl's governing Christian Democrats have made crime a major campaign, forcing other parties to do the same. There is common agreement on the need to fight the use of drugs, which has risen sharply in recent years. The Government has already introduced sharper measures in an effort to stop money laundering and has promised to tighten them if re-elected. However for the ordinary person Germany remains a safe place and there is much opposition to some of the Government plans.

The opposition also criticizes Government plans to toughen measures against young criminals. The Government also wants tougher action against beggars and those who spray graffiti on walls.

Refugee policy is another concern. The Interior Ministry says 35,000 illegal immigrants were caught on German borders this year and thousands more are believed to have got through. Germany is the goal not only of refugees from Kosovo, Albania, Iran and Iraq but also of thousands of people from Asia and Africa seeking a better life. Germany has a relatively generous policy towards genuine refugees and says this will continue. But the Government and Opposition agree it cannot accept a new wave of emigrants and controls must be tightened to stop those who are not genuine refugees.