- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

BERLIN — When Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came rolling into the east German town of Wittenberge in his black Mercedes limousine to open a glistening new $90 million rail station, the locals were in no mood to celebrate.

An angry mob greeted the German leader with raised fists, drowning out his speech in a cacophony of whistles and catcalls. The chancellor just escaped being hit by a rotten egg hurled in his direction. His official delegation was not so lucky as it made a swift exit from Wittenberge, the cars coming under a hail of stones that found their target.

He had gone to the town, wracked by high unemployment, to sell his Social Democratic Party’s “Agenda 2010” program of economic reforms. The protesters, mostly middle-aged men and women, brandished placards reading “No Future in East Germany,” and “You Practice Legalized Poverty.”

It was the first time in his six years in office that Mr. Schroeder had suffered what one political commentator described as “West Bank-style treatment” at the hands of his increasingly disgruntled electorate, and his ordeal did not end there.

Later the same day, Mr. Schroeder was subjected to another hostile reception in Leipzig, where demonstrators again drowned out his speech with whistles.

“The political culture in this country is being destroyed,” he protested in exasperation, and in vain. “We cannot have this in Germany.”

On Friday night another egg was thrown at Mr. Schroeder as he attended a music festival in the east German town of Finsterwalde. The egg missed the chancellor and police arrested a 17-year-old boy in connection with the incident.

The chancellor has good reason to feel alarmed. Earlier this year, he embarked on a drive to reform Germany’s sclerotic economy with long overdue cuts to welfare benefits. Public anger has since spiraled out of control.

Every week, thousands of ordinary Germans gather in towns and cities to protest against a key element of the reforms that will slash benefits for the long-term unemployed. Last week, the number of people attending these so-called “Monday demonstrations” topped the 100,000 mark. Heartened, the organizers vowed to carry on marshalling support until the government scrapped the program.

Germany’s opposition conservative Christian Democrats oppose the reforms. Hermann-Josef Arentz, the party’s social affairs committee chairman, described them as a scandal.

“It is not difficult to understand why people are taking to the streets,” he said. “Even for those who are desperate to work, the reforms do not offer the faintest chance of a job.”

Mr. Schroeder might have expected criticism from the opposition. Tomorrow, he will face a challenge from a previous ally.

Oskar Lafontaine, his former finance minister, is to signal his return to frontline politics as a would-be champion of Germany’s downtrodden masses when he gingers up supporters at a key anti-reform rally in Leipzig.

Mr. Lafontaine, also known as “Red Oskar” for his left-wing views, was forced to resign as finance minister and Social Democrat leader in 1999 following serious disagreements with Mr. Schroeder over policy.

The backlash could hardly have come at a worse time. Mr. Schroeder’s government already rates as the most unpopular Social Democrat-led administration since World War II. An opinion poll last week gave his party a mere 26 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for the opposition conservatives.

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