Mon, Nov 07, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Germans protest proposed cutbacks in social welfare

AP , BERLIN

Opponents of welfare cuts demonstrated on Saturday against the proposed new German government, which they fear will target social programs as it scrambles to plug a massive budget deficit.

It rained at times in Berlin and turnout appeared far short of organizers' forecast of 10,000 -- contrasting with huge crowds that protested benefit cuts last year.

At a separate event, conservative Chancellor-designate Angela Merkel said she was confident of agreeing soon on a coalition that will "find solutions" to Germany's problems.

Germany's Sept. 18 election gave neither center-left nor center-right alliances a parliamentary majority, forcing Merkel's conservatives and outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats into talks on a left-right "grand coalition."

The alliance will require painful compromises as they seek to boost the sluggish economy and cut unemployment.

Demonstrators converged on Berlin's signature Brandenburg Gate with placards demanding politicians keep their "hands off wages and pensions" and urging them to "fight unemployment, not the unemployed."

Protesters fear a deepening of Schroeder's 2-year-old "Agenda 2010" of welfare-state and labor market reforms, which included benefit cuts for the long-term jobless.

"They are going to make massive cuts, mainly affecting the little people," said demonstrator Roger Stamm, 52, a health and safety official from the western city of Bonn.

He charged that the emerging government stands for "the further destruction of the social security system."

He cited possible moves to increase value-added tax and scrap tax breaks, along with the prospect of pensions being frozen.

Negotiators hope to complete a coalition agreement over the next week, in time for Merkel to take office on Nov. 22, but are still working on plans to close a budget gap of US$42 billion.

Speaking in Bonn on Saturday, Merkel expressed confidence over prospects of a deal within a week.

"We want a `grand coalition' ... one that has Germany's problems in its sights and finds solutions," she said.

Another senior conservative, Christian Wulff, signaled discontent in an interview released earlier on Saturday, said that "we have got our way too little so far."

The two sides are at odds over whether to loosen Germany's labor laws to make it easier for small firms to fire unneeded workers -- a key plank of Merkel's election campaign.

For the longer term, they are discussing sweeping tax reforms and a step-by-step increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67.

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