German opposition party marks bittersweet 150th

AP News
Posted: May 23, 2013 8:16 AM
German opposition party marks bittersweet 150th

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's main opposition party marked a bittersweet 150th birthday on Thursday — trailing badly in polls ahead of September elections and hearing praise for its efforts to reform Europe's biggest economy from French President Francois Hollande, a recent left-wing winner who has lost his luster.

Hollande was the star guest at the center-left Social Democratic Party's festivities in Leipzig, where it was born in 1863. In a visible a reminder of the struggle the party faces to regain power, popular conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel — this week named the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine for the third year running — also attended.

"No other party has been able to last so long, because its core demands have constantly remained relevant in new ways: freedom, social justice and political participation," German President Joachim Gauck, who has no party affilation, told the gathering.

The Social Democrats pressed for workers' rights in the 19th century, helped shape Germany's post-World War I democracy and spoke up against Adolf Hitler's move to give himself dictatorial power in 1933 — and later many party members ended up in concentration camps for their opposition to the Nazis.

In the 1970s, the party's Chancellor Willy Brandt launched the policy of Ostpolitik, or bridge-building with communist eastern Europe.

Merkel's Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, launched labor reforms and welfare-state cuts now credited with helping make Germany's economy resilient — but they were deeply unpopular among many members of his party and hurt its support.

"Progress is also about making courageous choices at difficult moments to preserve jobs and to anticipate industrial changes — that is was Gerhard Schroeder did here in Germany, which today allows your country to be ahead of others," Hollande said.

The Socialist president, who has seen his popularity plunge since taking office a year ago, faces similar headaches as he tries to kick-start the French economy. "These decisions aren't easy to take, they can even lead to controversy — but nothing solid can be built by ignoring reality," Hollande said.

The French president underlined his hopes for "integration in solidarity" in Europe — a hint at the differences between Paris and Berlin under Merkel. She has strongly opposed any pooling of eurozone countries' debt — something to which the Social Democrats are somewhat more open.

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The party's chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, said it wants "a Germany that thinks European and doesn't fall back into nationalism."

The main thrust of its election platform, though, is narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots, introducing a mandatory minimum wage and raising taxes for top earners. Gabriel called for "a Germany and Europe in which people have enough work, and good work is also well-paid."

However, Gabriel's party faces an uphill struggle to oust Merkel in parliamentary elections on Sept. 22. Polls show the party trailing her conservatives by more than 10 points and Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck far behind Merkel in terms of popularity.

They also show no majority for Merkel's current center-right coalition, however, raising the possibility — unpopular among Social Democrats — of a revival of the 2005-9 "grand coalition" in which they were Merkel's junior governing partner.