06/24/2013 06:02 PM

Merkel Promises Austerity Abroad, Profligacy at Home


Just when it seemed as though German politicians were going to completely forget to campaign ahead of September elections, Angela Merkel has finally showed signs that she hopes to be re-elected this fall. Following months of essentially ignoring her political opponents, the chancellor on Monday presented her party's campaign program and even deigned to launch what might be construed as an attack on her challengers.

"On Sept. 22, we must decide what direction we should take as a country," she told supporters in Berlin during the presentation of the 127-page platform. At issue, she said, is whether the country continues down its current path of success, "or whether things go downhill" under a Social Democrat-Green Party governing coalition.

But according to her critics, and her main opponent, the platform that her Christian Democrats (CDU) presented on Monday together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is little more than a package of expensive campaign promises that cannot be fulfilled.

Merkel's platform, said her Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrück on Monday, "consists of several platitudes and empty promises." SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel said the platform should be called the "election fraud program." Both say that Germany cannot afford the many promises that Merkel makes.

And they might have a point. Merkel has continually insisted that her party stands for fiscal responsibility in times of crisis in the common currency zone and demanded that Southern European countries pursue strict austerity programs. Indeed, on Monday she urged Europeans to not constantly be looking for the next "pot of money." Yet her platform is full of expensive promises. Tax benefits for families, for example, are to be boosted at a cost of €7.5 billion ($9.8 billion). An additional €1 billion per year is to be spent on road construction. And the conservatives have promised to tackle inequalities in the country's taxation system, a measure that could result in an annual tax revenue shortfall of €6 billion.

Big Back Door

Finally, Merkel has promised to change pension laws for women such that time spent home raising children will be considered when calculating retirement benefits. The cost is estimated to be €6.5 billion.

There are also myriad other promises to be found in the document, from improved school facilities to tax benefits for home owners who improve their home security systems. The CDU and CSU have also ruled out tax increases.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere conjured up for the presentation of the campaign platform on Monday, there are many within the party who are not at all pleased about the laundry list of gifts for the electorate that Merkel has drawn up. "The contest among the parties to constantly outdo each other when it comes to inventing new social benefits like the motherhood pension is irresponsible," Wolfgang Steiger, general secretary of the CDU's economic council, told SPIEGEL ONLINE last week.

Another member of the CDU's conservative wing seemed to suggest that not even the party itself planned to actually fulfil the pledges made in the platform. "Campaign promises are the things the parties promise in order to get elected," said Kurt Lauk, president of the CDU economic council, last week in Berlin. "It has never been the case that campaign promises are included one-to-one in a governmental program. Voters know that from experience."

On Monday, Merkel sought to assuage such concerns. "Solid finances and sensible investments are not contradictory," she said. She has, however, already provided herself with a backdoor. It remains to be seen, she said last week, whether there will be enough money to implement all of the promises listed in the platform. Particularly, she noted, given the amount of money that might have to be spent on flood recovery.

With reporting by Peter Müller and Philipp Wittrock


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