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Party of the (Rich) People

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Germany’s Free Democratic Party once described itself as the “party of the well-off.” Its leaders quickly realized the error of making such an exclusive description, but the moniker has stuck. As it enters the campaign for national elections Sept. 22, the FDP has come out for a sharp reduction in income taxes for the wealthy as the recipe for cutting unemployment.

Under the FDP’s program, the top rate of income tax would drop to 35% from the present steep 48.5%. In addition, the FDP proposes to offer a 37,500 deduction for each child. “You say that reducing tax costs money,” FDP leader Guido Westerwelle told Chancellor Gerhard Schröderin parliament during a recent debate on the economy. “We say nothing is more expensive for the country than administering unemployment.”

In the past, the Free Democrats have been the traditional coalition partner of the Christian Democratic Union, with the FDP usually securing the post of foreign minister in a coalition government. This year, the party has decided to run Westerwelle as a Chancellor candidate against Schröder and conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber. The goal is to win 18% of the vote and have a bigger say in the makeup of the next government. Opinion polls, however, suggest the party may win no more than 9% of the vote (compared with 6.2% in 1998).

One reason for this is the FDP’s image as &(e)acute;litist. In the current campaign, for example, the party says it favors repeal of Germany’s strong law against wrongful dismissal, a proposal that even Stoiber, the conservative premier of Bavaria, is against.

Complicating the FDP’s outlook is an embarrassing controversy over anti-Semitism. Jrgen Möllemann, the party’s deputy national leader, warned that prominent Jewish opposition to criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might be “liable to awaken anti-Semitic resentments.” The comment caused an uproar because it seemed to repeat an old slur that Jews bring anti-Semitism on themselves. Möllemann later apologized to Jewish leaders, but the controversy continues to simmer.

It’s not clear from opinion polls whether the Möllemann flap will help or hinder the FDP in September’s elections. When asked whether they support current Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer or Westerwelle for the job, 69% of respondents chose Fischer. Embarrassingly, even 57% of FDP supporters said they preferred Fischer

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