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Spelling row highlights German resistance to change

August 12, 2005

By Philip Blenkinsop

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germans cannot agree on how to spell
simple words. What then are the chances they will successfully
tackle complex economic and social problems?

A dispute over reform of spelling rules highlights the
difficulty of implementing change in Germany as reform-minded
Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel may find if, as polls
predict, she becomes chancellor in an election in September.

In Germany’s consensus-model of decision-making, she would
likely need backing from a smaller coalition partner, but must
also beware of infighting within her own conservative camp.

Germany’s 16 states were all to have enforced new rules
designed to simplify spelling in their schools by August 1, but
the two largest, Bavaria and North-Rhine Westphalia, both
conservative-ruled, decided to permit the old spellings as
well.

Ulm and Neu-Ulm, on opposite banks of the Danube and in
different conservative-led states, cannot agree how to spell
the word “river,” while “shipping” could have two “F”s in one
town, but three in the other (Schiffahrt/Schifffahrt).

The new rules have been decades in the making. Unveiled in
1998, Germans have had seven years to get used to the changes.
But a survey carried out at the beginning of August showed that
two-thirds of Germans were still using the old spelling system
and only one in five had made the full switch.

Germany’s inability to sort out the issue illustrates a
wider resistance to change which threatens to make the country
a laughing stock, say media commentators.

CONSERVATIVE RIFTS

Uwe Andersen, a political analyst at the Ruhr University in
Bochum, said there were arguments unique to the spelling
debate, but a general lesson to be drawn.

“You could see it as a symbol of the difficulty of pushing
things through,” he said.

Merkel, whose party is around 13 points ahead of Chancellor
Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats, has been keen to
underline her reform credentials with plans to cut labor costs
and ease hiring and firing.

However, while most in the conservative camp are agreed on
her jobs market plans, there is plenty of scope for dissent.

The Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian sister party,
the Christian Social Union (CSU), engaged in a damaging public
row over the reform of the health service and whether to charge
fixed or pay-related contributions.

A compromise solution barely papered over the cracks and
postponed debate on the devilish details.

Tackling the problems of a rapidly aging population with an
adequate pension reform could be another source of strife.

UNWIELDY FEDERAL SYSTEM

Germany’s problems are clear. Unemployment is near record
post-war highs just under 5 million, while economic growth,
likely to be around one percent in 2005, has been slack for
years.

Schroeder’s labor market reforms put pressure on unemployed
Germans to take up work, but few firms showed any willingness
to hire. Meanwhile, the nation is set to bust EU budget rules
limiting deficits for a fourth straight year in 2005.

Schroeder has sought to blame the conservative-controlled
upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, that has blocked
measures, including a proposed cut to new home subsidies.

Victory for Merkel would not necessarily ensure her an easy
ride.

“Experience has shown that state interests can be much
stronger than party-political ties,” said Andersen.

Germany’s post-war federal system, providing state and
local counterweights to central government after the excesses
of the Nazis, has become a complex web of overlapping powers
and responsibilities that has blocked change.

The Bundesrat now has a decisive say on 60 percent of
government legislation, compared with just 10 percent five
decades ago.

Talks to overhaul the system, designed to bring that
percentage down to 35-40 percent, collapsed last December amid
a feud over education.

For many it is the single, most pressing issue facing
Germany.

“There’s far too much overlapping responsibility over a
long list of issues. It certainly needs to be tackled,” said
Dieter Braeuninger, political economist at Deutsche Bank.

“Unfortunately, it will probably not be given the high
priority it needs.”




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