Merkel Challenger Steinbrueck Attacks Wealth Gap as Election Key

Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck assailed an expanding wealth gap and unhindered capitalism that he accused Angela Merkel of failing to check as he attempted to gain traction in his campaign to unseat her.

Declaring “I want to be chancellor,” Steinbrueck championed an increase in the top income-tax rate to 49 percent and a minimum hourly wage of 8.50 euros ($11.15) as policies that will address a “gulf” in society, while portraying Merkel’s coalition as negligent in protecting average Germans from financial-market excesses.

“Never again will risk-taking speculator X in New York, London or Frankfurt be allowed to put the savings of Marie Tibulski from Bottrop in danger,” Steinbrueck told delegates to a party convention yesterday in the Bavarian city of Augsburg. “And never again will system-relevant banks have such potential to blackmail whole states.”

Less than six months before the Sept. 22 election, the challenge for Steinbrueck to stop Merkel winning a third term has sharpened as the chancellor basks in overwhelming voter support for her handling of turmoil in the euro area. Merkel’s first-term finance minister and one-time ally in shepherding Germany through the global financial crisis, Steinbrueck’s response is a plank of measures to bolster social justice while ratcheting up regulation on banks and markets.

‘Finance Jugglers’

“Restraining the financial markets is economically right because finance jugglers don’t create wealth but destroy wealth,” he said. It’s also “socially just because otherwise profits are privatized and losses socialized.” The Social Democrats “want a market economy that conforms with democracy - - that’s the opposite of what Mrs. Merkel wants,” Steinbrueck said.

Speaking as an anti-euro party was founded in Berlin, Steinbrueck didn’t dwell on the crisis in the 17-nation euro area that spread from Greece and has dominated Merkel’s second term. He failed to mention his party’s platform pledge to pool debt in a “redemption fund,” nor did he outline his solution to the stumbling energy overhaul that Merkel has begun after deciding to close the country’s nuclear plants.

Steinbrueck instead portrayed Merkel’s government as tired and out of ideas, content to give the impression of tackling Germany’s ills without taking real action. The government “has no ambition, no goals,” he said.

Tax Dodging

The SPD, which signed off on its campaign platform in Augsburg, would clamp down on tax dodging, introduce a “solidarity pension,” improve elderly care, ensure equal pay for women and men and limit rent increases for new letters to 10 percent, he said.

“This government has nothing more on the shelves, just pretty boxes in the shop window,” Steinbrueck said. “And when their empty shelves aren’t enough they steal from us,” he said, citing government plans to split investment from retail banking and measures to tackle tax evasion.

The SPD trails Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc by 26 points to 41 percent, an increase of two percentage points on the previous week, according to an Emnid poll for yesterday’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper. With the gap widening, 48 percent of 500 SPD voters polled said their party would do better with a different candidate for chancellor against 44 percent who said they backed Steinbreuck to lead them into the election, the newspaper said. It gave no margin of error.

Brecht, Diesel

SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel used his speech in Augsburg, the home town of dramatist Bertolt Brecht and 19th-century engine pioneer Rudolf Diesel, to attack global corporations paying less than their fair share of taxes, saying his party must “drain this swamp” of excessive capitalism.

Gabriel singled out Google Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. as companies he said were benefiting from low taxes in Europe. The SPD chairman referred to an unnamed Internet executive who “proudly” touted his company’s tax levy of less than 5 percent as a benefit of a capitalist system.

“We Social Democrats will take up the battle against this kind of capitalism,” Gabriel told the delegates.

He criticized Merkel’s reliance on austerity measures at the expense of economic growth, saying that she had brought the European Union to “the biggest crisis of its history.”

“Europe has piled up a trillion euros in debt in the last three years with Angela Merkel in charge -- no wonder deficits are shrinking; debt is piling up because economic growth is slipping away,” Gabriel said. “We need a real change of policy direction.”

Gabriel pushed back against polls showing the gap between the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democrats widening, rebuffing suggestions that the SPD’s only way into government would be a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s bloc. A coalition with the Greens “and nothing else” is his party’s goal, he said.

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