Schröder defiant in face of growing protests over welfare cuts

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The Independent Online

Opponents of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's drive to cut benefits staged demonstrations across Germany yesterday, said by organisers to be the most widespread yet in a summer of discontent.

Opponents of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's drive to cut benefits staged demonstrations across Germany yesterday, said by organisers to be the most widespread yet in a summer of discontent.

More than 60,000 took part in demonstrations yesterday afternoon, including 20,000 in the eastern city of Leipzig, twice as many as in the last protest there a week earlier, organisers said. Rallies were also held in Berlin, Magdeburg and dozens of other cities across the country.

Meant to evoke the spirit of 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that led to the collapse of Communist rule in East Germany, the protests ­ centred in the economically depressed east ­ have grown steadily since they began two weeks ago in anger at planned cuts in benefits for the long-term jobless.

In Berlin, thousands of people gathered in Alexanderplatz square, the former centre of Communist East Berlin, holding signs saying "Schröder must go" and "Stand up against the social welfare robbers".

Win Windisch, 24, a protester from Berlin, said: "This just puts more pressure on the unemployed. The corporations want to pay less and less in taxes, and it's always the poor who suffer." The new laws, which take effect next year, lower long-term jobless benefits to the level of welfare payments and raise pressure on the unemployed to accept jobs. The changes are part of an unpopular programme of welfare-state cuts that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder launched last year in efforts to boost the economy.

His government made concessions last week on the timing of the first payments, but has refused to abandon the law.

Bela Anda, Mr Schröder's spokesman, said yesterday: "The Chancellor has made it very clear that he will stay the course on Agenda 2010. All decisions will be implemented, there will be no corrections."

Later, 15,000 people protested in Magdeburg, where the demonstrations against the cuts began. Thousands also demonstrated in the eastern cities of Halle and Dessau. Wolfgang Templin, a former East German dissident, predicted that the protests would grow stronger into the autumn, telling the Berliner Zeitung daily newspaper that the government had merely offered "a few crumbs" to address opponents' concerns.

Mr Schröder's Social Democratic Party has suffered losses in state elections, as well as a stinging defeat in June voting for the European Parliament.

Its poll ratings are sagging as they face another three state elections this autumn, two of them in the east, prompting some Social Democrats to call for changes to the cuts to appease the public.

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