Rebel Lafontaine challenges Schröder over welfare cuts

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The Independent Online

Oskar Lafontaine, the rebel left-wing Social Democrat once labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe", yesterday announced he will join Germany's growing anti-reform protest movement in a challenge to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's unpopular government.

Oskar Lafontaine, the rebel left-wing Social Democrat once labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe", yesterday announced he will join Germany's growing anti-reform protest movement in a challenge to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's unpopular government.

The former German finance minister and Social Democrat party leader, who was forced to quit both posts in 1999, said he would speak at an anti-reform demonstration in the east German city of Leipzig at the end of the month, signalling his attempt at a political comeback. He is likely to target the Schröder government's attempts to reform the economy.

He said yesterday: ""I would be the first to support these policies if they led to economic growth. But where is the growth?"

Mr Lafontaine had to resign from Mr Schröder's government five years ago because of his left-wing stance. His views earned him the nickname "Red Oskar" and prompted The Sun to describe him as "the most dangerous man in Europe".

The former Social Democrat leader has been a fierce opponent of the Schröder government's reform programme, but although still a party member he has stayed out of frontline politics and limited his criticism to writing a book and appearances on television chat shows.

But growing popular opposition to the reforms in Germany have clearly provided Mr Lafontaine with an opportunity too tempting to ignore. This month, he caused uproar in the Social Democrat leadership by publicly calling for Mr Schröder's resignation and demanding that the government change course.

In another potentially dangerous development for the government, Mr Lafontaine yesterday threatened to back a new breakaway left-wing political movement called "Voters' Alternative" made up of disgruntled Social Democrats and trade unionists.

In the biggest anti-reform protests to date, nearly 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Leipzig, Magdeburg, Berlin and scores of other towns and cities in east and west Germany on Monday.

On Tuesday night there were demonstrations in the city of Frankfurt an der Oder in east Germany. The organisers said the demonstrations would continue until the government backtracked on a key element of the reform programme - known as Hartz IV - which will cut benefits for the long-term unemployed and reduce their social security payment levels early next year. Germany, with a population of 82.4 million, has a total of 4.6 million jobless.

But the government has so far ruled out any change of course despite a climate of growing apprehension within the governing party. "If we do not manage to sort out the problems of Hartz IV by the end of the year, then Oskar will have an ideal starting pad for his new party and that can't be in our interest," Andrea Nahles, a leading left-wing Social Democrat, warned.

With Social Democrat support down to less than 25 per cent in the opinion polls, senior members of the party are worried that Mr Lafontaine's position as a leading member of the anti-reform movement could mean that the government will not survive until the 2006 election.

Mr Schröder returned from holiday in Italy yesterday and said his government would not abandon its reform programme. "Everything will continue just as planned," he said.

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