Merkel feel-good election manifesto draws fire

German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Monday she would not raise taxes or take on new debt to finance tens of billions in election pledges that even the business wing of her party said contradict the austerity champion's promise of budget discipline.

In a campaign speech three months before the election, Merkel pledged that "we must do everything to promote growth and create jobs and refrain from doing anything which endangers this. That's why we are so vehemently against ... tax increases."

If re-elected, she said, her conservative government would also seek to "take on no new debt, and we are in a position to say we want to ... start repaying our debt. That would be the first time in decades, and that's what we want."

The opposition Social Democrats -- who are seeking to rule with the Greens party but are badly trailing Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the polls -- predictably labelled the 120-page party manifesto a "fairytale book".

Merkel's Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, head of junior coalition partners the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), also charged that the campaign-mode CDU, under Merkel who has advocated budgetary rigour across the eurozone, had succumbed to the "sweet poison of spending".

Remarkably, the CDU's own business wing also voiced doubt that all the pledges would be met. The manifesto had no total price tag, but the pledges have been estimated to be worth 30 to 40 billion euros ($39 billion to $52 billion).

"It's traditional practice in this country to make election promises before the polls which are then, in the government and coalition negotiations, made redundant," said the head of the party's economic council, Kurt Lauk.

"Voters have known for 50 years that this is how it works," he added in stunningly frank comments on ARD public television.

Merkel, who first presented the programme Sunday with the CDU's Bavarian sister party the CSU, was seeking to maximise exposure by speaking again before some 650 delegates Monday as campaigning heats up for the September 22 poll.

The mass-circulation Bild daily in a commentary said the programme was the most Social Democratic, Green and cautious the CDU had ever campaigned with, designed to keep the door open for almost any potential coalition partner.

"Strictly speaking, the CDU/CSU could boil down their programme into three points," the paper said. "1. Merkel. 2. Keep it up. 3. Keep it up with Merkel."

Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said Merkel had co-opted most of the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) signature issues, from steps to cap inner-city rental increases to promoting the status of women in business, depriving her opponents of campaign issues while seeking to capture the political centre.

"The party is trying to turn into a movement" and is almost solely focused on its star politician Merkel, said Neugebauer.

"Merkel's role is the promise of credibility," Neugebauer said about the chancellor who is consistently chosen in polls as Germany's most popular politician for what many voters see as a no-nonsense and pragmatic leadership style.

"But the task of turning the promises into reality will be that of (Finance Minister Wolfgang) Schaeuble," added Neugebauer, who cautioned that the manifesto is peppered with "ifs" and that many pledges are predicated on a humming economy and healthy finances.

The SPD's top candidate Peer Steinbrueck, Merkel's former finance minister in a grand coalition government, on Monday dismissed the CDU programme as "platitudes and empty promises".

"There are no proposals on how to finance these crazy promises," charged Steinbrueck, who also said the CDU had written its programme in an "undemocratic, top-down" way without rank-and-file participation.