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Germany: Opposition May Support Some Economic Reforms

Munich, 28 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's embattled Social Democratic government is having a hard time winning support for its economic reform program. But this weekend, the government's dark days received a little touch of sunlight from the conservative opposition. The leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Wolfgang Schaeuble, said during the past weekend that the party should not simply block all the government's reforms. Schaeuble did not identify which areas of the government's program the CDU could accept, but he hinted broadly that some of the reforms could go through.

The Christian Democrats have enough seats in the upper house of parliament to prevent a government majority. In effect, this means that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his finance minister, Hans Eichel, are dependent on opposition support to turn their reforms into law. Eichel has acknowledged that it is unlikely his proposals will survive in their original form.

The government's reform package calls for significant spending cuts, amounting to $16 billion dollars next year. Other austerity measures will be spread over the next three years. The proposals affect almost every German voter in some way and have aroused widespread hostility. Opinion polls show that Schroeder personally has slipped to seventh position in public popularity. The polls indicate that his Social Democratic party would gain less than one-third of the vote if an election were held this month. The party has suffered heavy losses in every provincial election this year.

The CDU's Schaeuble has said several times in the past few weeks that his party agrees that economic reconstruction is urgently needed in Germany. But he has never given a detailed outline of which parts of the government package the CDU will accept. And he has given only a shadowy idea of the opposition's counter-proposals.

Schaeuble was not more forthcoming in his speech to the CDU party congress in the province of Baden-Wurtemburg this past weekend. Instead, he made a strong attack on Chancellor Schroeder over the continuing high unemployment in Germany and said he held Schroeder personally responsible. German commentators pointed out, however, that in fact the unemployment rate in most parts of Germany is about the same as it was under the last CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

Chancellor Schroeder has also come under attack this week from his former finance minister, Oscar Lafontaine. The left-winger Lafontaine left his post abruptly in March because of disagreements with the chancellor's policies. He had been finance minister for less than six months.

In a newspaper interview in advance of his latest book, Lafontaine accused Schroeder of abandoning traditional, left-wing Social Democratic policies. Lafontaine said the party was favoring businesses at the expense of the ordinary worker. He said that was the main cause of this year's succession of electoral disasters.

In the newspaper interview, Lafontaine said the electoral defeats could have been avoided if the party had remained true to the left-wing policies he had advocated in his few months in government. But many German commentators disagree. Several argue that it was exactly Lafontaine's left-wing policies that alienated the voters who had put the Social Democrats into power a year ago.

Lafontaine made clear that he expects to continue his public criticism of the government in which he once served. But he may be overestimating his support. Opinion polls carried by several German newspapers after the interview was published indicate that more than two-thirds of German voters do not want him back.