Source AP ©

Merkel sneaks Social Democrats' mantle

As Germany’s Social Democrats saw a little progress in their polls they began targeting Angela Merkel, accusing her of trying to steal the party's mantle as a defender of social justice, highlighting tensions in the governing coalition.

Kurt Beck tried to polish the left-wing credentials of the party of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at a party conference where he is seeking re-election as party leader and endorsement of a plan that would partly roll back one of Schroeder's pro-business reforms.

The Social Democrats, or SPD, are equal partners in the governing "grand coalition" - the result of a 2005 election in which Merkel's conservatives only just beat them.

But since then, polls have shown them trailing badly. They have been squeezed both by the popularity of Merkel, who has cultivated a more socially caring image after her talk of economic reform turned off voters two years ago, and by The Left, an alliance of ex-communists and ex-Social Democrats that relentlessly opposes reforms.

"We can only say: welcome, Ms. Merkel, when you say what we have long advocated: that all people should have a share in what has been earned," said Beck, the chancellor's likeliest challenger when Germany next votes in 2009, in a speech to some 525 delegates. "But I can offer a reminder that a few things are copyrighted."

Merkel's conservatives have encroached on traditional Social Democratic territory by, for example, spearheading the introduction of generous new family benefits.

However, Beck said Merkel's Christian Democrats fought the 2005 election "with market radicalism ... and that continues to be at the core of (their) policies."

Schroeder's "Agenda 2010" of reforms has been credited with contributing to Germany's economic recovery. The package included an unpopular move to reduce long-term jobless benefits to the level of welfare payments - raising pressure on the unemployed to accept jobs in an effort to cut unemployment and boost the economy.

With the economy now healthier, Beck wants to retrench by extending full jobless benefits to 15 months from 12 for workers aged over 45, and says over-50s who lose their jobs should get full benefits for two years rather than 18 months. Members were considering the proposal Friday.

"Cautiously and without going backward, we must be ready to balance out" elements of the reform agenda, Beck said in Friday's speech.

Schroeder, who was welcomed at the conference with a standing ovation, gave his blessing.

"Agenda 2010 is an instrument, it is not the aim - so it can be changed," he said. "I can only advise going about it with a sense of proportion, and my impression is that that is happening."

Surveys over recent months have found support for the SPD languishing between 25 and 30 percent, with Merkel's party approaching 40 percent. Still, Beck declared himself confident that the party will recover.

"So-called left-wingers and temporary verbal Social Democrats will have to measure themselves against us again," he said. "The SPD is the benchmark for justice, for success and for a peaceful future."

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