Merkel opponents aiming to exploit rising inequality in election
For all its economic success, Germany has a growing problem with inequality and poverty which is set to become a key battleground in September's election.
Nowhere is the widening gap between rich and poor more evident than in the Ruhr region, an urban sprawl of five million people that was once the centre of Germany's heavy industry.
A highway that ploughs through the western region is nicknamed the "social equator", separating suburbs hit by the decline of coal mining and steel-making from those benefiting from the new industries that now power German growth.
To the north, soup kitchens and food banks tend to the unemployed, homeless refugees, and working poor. To the south, highly qualified workers drive luxury cars to glass buildings housing high-tech and pharma companies.
Sensing an opportunity to beat the conservative chancellor on September 24, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) are trying to mobilise disgruntled Germans. "Many people fear that their pension won't be enough, the rent can't be paid, or that their children will be permanently on limited job contracts," said SPD deputy chairman Ralf Stegner.
But recapturing these voters, many of them once SPD loyalists, is proving tough going.
North Rhine-Westphalia, home to the divided Ruhr region and where poverty has risen more than in any of Germany's 16 other states, should be fertile ground for the message. Likewise, pensioner Edith Rena, 75, would seem an obvious target voter. "I worked for 40 years and raised two children alone," Rena said, resting on her trolley packed with fruit and vegetables bought at a discount at a food bank in Dortmund. "I come here because it's cheap so I can save money to buy presents for my grandchildren."
Her €620 monthly state pension doesn't cover her living expenses and rent, yet Ms Merkel's message that economic growth is steady still resonates with voters like Rena, still stung by SDP reforms in the 2000s.
"Of course I'm going to vote for Merkel," she said . "We've done well under her. Why would I vote for a party that abandoned the poor?"
The German Institute for Economic Research says that between 1991 and 2014, real disposable income shrunk by 8pc for the poorest 10pc of Germans. For the richest it rose 27pc. Despite its image as a nation of well-paid workers making world-class goods, Germany lags in international comparisons. The proportion of employed Germans threatened by poverty is higher than the EU average, and worse than in the UK or France.
After naming Martin Schulz as its leader in January, the SPD surged in opinion polls. However, the conservatives have reopened a lead in recent polls.
Schulz, a former European Parliament president, is promising to undo some of the "Agenda 2010" reforms enacted by his own party over a decade ago. These helped turn Germany from the "sick man of Europe" into a powerhouse, but increased the number of low-paid and part-time jobs and hit SPD heartlands hard.
"The SPD is trying to remobilise its lost support base, to bring non-voters back to the ballot box," said Professor Robert Vehrkamp of think tank the Bertelsmann Foundation.
This could be decisive for the party's chances of victory, he added.
The conservatives meanwhile are promising tax cuts of €15bn a year that would mainly benefit middle-income households. (Reuters)