Merkel’s challenger pledges quick policy changes

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-left challenger is pledging quick policy changes if elected next month, promising Thursday to introduce swiftly a national minimum wage and raise taxes for top earners as he seeks to reverse a daunting poll deficit.

Recent surveys have given the popular Merkel’s conservative bloc a lead of up to 19 percentage points over Peer Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats and suggested that her current center-right coalition can hope to win re-election on Sept. 22.

But Steinbrueck insisted that “absolutely nothing is decided,” arguing that many voters are undecided and there are millions of former supporters his party can reach out to.

He spoke as he presented his priorities for his first 100 days as chancellor — a list heavy on pledges to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots, designed to tackle perceptions that there’s little difference between Germany’s major parties.

“The direction of the compass is that Germany is economically strong because it can be socially fair,” Steinbrueck told reporters. “Each depends on the other.”

Top of the list is a commitment to introduce a mandatory national minimum wage — which Germany, unlike many other countries, lacks — of 8.50 euros ($11.35) per hour. Steinbrueck also wants to increase the income tax rate on people earning above 100,000 euros per year to 49 from 42 percent, cut electricity taxes and crack down on tax evasion.

Merkel opposes tax increases, arguing that they would hurt the economy, and argues against a one-size-fits-all minimum wage — preferring sector-by-sector deals between employers and employees.

Steinbrueck also is pledging to scrap a much-criticized new benefit for parents who choose to stay at home and invest the money in day-care facilities, increase pensions for the low-paid and drop rules forcing many children of immigrants to choose between German citizenship and that of their parents.

While Steinbrueck’s 100-day agenda is largely domestic, it includes a pledge to press ahead with a European banking union — a key step to restoring confidence in Europe’s financial system.

Specifically, he wants progress on setting up a central authority to wind up failing European banks — something Merkel’s government insists would require time-consuming changes to European treaties. Steinbrueck charged that Merkel’s government “is filibustering and delaying.”

Steinbrueck made clear that a center-left government wouldn’t do everything differently in Europe’s financial crisis.

Merkel’s government recently admitted Greece will need a third aid package, but opposes calls for Athens to be granted a second debt writedown following a debt restructuring deal agreed with private sector bondholders last year.

“I share the extreme reluctance” of the government to consider that, Steinbrueck said.

He said another writedown would risk wiping out future investor confidence in Greek bonds and likely would burden taxpayers — “and you try explaining that to (our) citizens.”

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