German parties in a crisis

BERLIN – Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany no longer leads his Social Democratic Party (SPD). While remaining head of the government, he has turned over running the party to his right-hand man, Franz Muentefering, and replaced the party’s colorless general secretary with a man once ousted from the party for his radical views.

Rumors abound that the Cabinet will soon be reshuffled. The right-wing opposition has called this the “beginning of the end” of the Social Democratic/Green coalition government. Schroeder denies any weakness but the explanation of these changes is clear enough.

When it came to social security, health care, pensions and workers’ rights, Germany was once a model. Though very many are without work, liberal and lengthy jobless insurance, plus retraining programs and government subsidized jobs – somewhat like the WPA program in the U.S. during the Depression – kept many people going, especially with health costs kept quite low.

Until Jan. 1 you walked into a doctor’s office and waited your turn without pulling out your wallet; your health insurance tax had already been taken from your paycheck, your boss had added his share, doubling the amount, so you were covered for most treatment. Now, every three months, when you walk into a doctor’s or dentist’s office, the first thing you hear is: “10 Euros, please!” And no treatment until you shell out.

The price system for prescribed medicines has also been altered. A few prices were reduced but most have gone up. So have the costs for hospital and dental care. The justification for this so-called reform was to permit cuts in the monthly insurance, both for wage and salary earners and for employers who must match the amount, thus somehow encouraging more hiring and cutting the number of jobless Germans to less than the current 4.5 million.

But the 400 different semi-official and approved private insurers, or a fair share of them, now say: “Sorry, pharmaceutical prices, hospital prices and lots more are too high. We’re not cutting rates, we may even raise them.”

The reforms also deal directly with the unemployed. Next year jobless pay will drop much earlier to welfare payment levels, hardly above bare subsistence. In the eastern states, where German unification was followed quickly by the near destruction of industry and jobless rates stagnate at 15 to 25 percent or more, this will reduce large numbers of the long-term unemployed to poverty. The jobless will be compelled to take any job assigned them, even at the lowest wage rate, or lose all assistance. Employers will naturally take advantage of this, thus endangering the entire wage structure.

The big employer organizations are already demanding a longer workweek at the same pay. Cuts in pension payments, already beginning, will have a similar effect. Because of these cuts, planned for this spring, and the many additional medical costs, plus increased fares and rent, many pensioners are worried.

Is it any wonder that the popularity of Chancellor Schroeder’s SPD has dropped to an all time low of 24 percent? Strangely enough, although the Greens call for even more stringent changes, the junior partners in the governing coalition (who hold no key economic cabinet posts, however) have not lost out in the polls. They now stand at about 11 percent. That, plus the 24 percent of the SPD, is far from the majority needed if the present coalition is to be reelected in two years’ time. The right-wing parties, now at about 50 percent, are looking on with glee and already making plans for a takeover in 2006.

Only one really left-of-center party is represented in the Bundestag, the Party of Democratic Socialism, (PDS). Since the election of 2002, however, when it failed the 5 percent hurdle required for proper representation, only the two young women who won direct mandates in their East Berlin districts are now seated there and they have been pushed to the furthest edge of the chamber, with one telephone, no staff, virtually no right to speak, ask questions or otherwise participate. If it is to regain credibility as an effective party, the PDS must get over 5 percent nationally in the 2006 elections, especially among East German voters who have usually given it 15 to 25 percent in the five eastern provinces and more in East Berlin.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.