Left-wingers seek upper hand in SPD infighting

 

AFTER SUNDAY’S general election disaster, left-wingers in Germany’s Social Democrats have demanded that the party finally break with the Gerhard Schröder era and open the door to co-operation with the reformed communist Left Party.

Germany’s oldest political party is torn, its feuding factions proposing contradictory plans of action after their 11 years in power ended in a historic 11-point drop in support to just 23 per cent.

In opposition, the SPD now has no choice but to tackle the identity question it put off since Gerhard Schröder left in 2005 and the grand coalition began.

Was Schröder’s two-term centrist path, defined by controversial economic and social welfare reforms, an anomaly to be quickly excised from the party history, as left-wingers believe? Or should the party stand by the Schröder era, reforms and all, despite the cost of power, members and support? At a stormy party executive meeting yesterday the SPD mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, a leading light of the party’s left wing, demanded the resignation of all involved in the election campaign and the Schröder-era welfare reforms.

“The necessary repositioning of the SPD in the coming years will only be credible if there are also changes in the party leadership,” said the Berlin SPD in a leaked position paper. “We want new faces and new names. A generational change has to be felt, and now.” After putting on a united front for the election campaign, the SPD has disintegrated into its feuding factions, each hoping to have the upper hand after the shake-up.

The faction with the strongest hand is the left-wing grouping around Mr Wowereit and deputy party leader Andrea Nahles.

They were involved in a short-lived, abortive swing to the left two years ago and, after Sunday’s debacle, they are hoping for another chance at the limelight.

They have already scored a first success with the ex-chancellor’s closest centrist ally: party leader Franz Müntefering. He acknowledged that his departure is a mere matter of time. “I have made it clear that I am aware of my responsibility as party leader,” he said. German finance minister and one of the SPD’s deputy leaders Peer Steinbrück said yesterday he was giving up all his party posts.

The SPD left would like to see him followed by SPD election candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier. As Mr Schröder’s chief of staff, he was closely involved in drafting the economic and social reforms of 2003 that brought down the chancellor two years later. But, despite the result, Mr Steinmeier turned in a stronger-than-expected performance and endeared himself to party rank and file.

Many would have liked to see him take over as party leader from Mr Müntefering on election night.

Instead, Mr Steinmeier complicated the succession stakes by announcing he was only interested in heading the SPD opposition parliamentary party.

With Mr Steinmeier likely to stay on, Mr Wowereit yesterday moved on to his next demand, urging the SPD to follow his example in the Berlin state government and open the door to the Left Party. The party of ex-communists and disillusioned former SPD members is already in government in several state coalitions. After taking 11.9 per cent of the vote on Sunday to become Germany’s fourth largest political party, Mr Müntefering says the party is simply too big to ignore any longer.

“We have said we will never co-operate with the Left Party at federal level. I would ask that this taboo be lifted,” he said.

The SPD centre-right has tried to block the left’s demands by calling for agreement on party policy before settling leadership issues. Their reading of Sunday’s election disaster is that voters were not punishing them once again for Schröder-era reforms, but for the party’s own love-hate relationship with the era.

“With so many internal policy contradictions we have a huge credibility problem,” said Hannelore Kraft, SPD leader in the party’s traditional homeland of North-Rhine Westphalia.

“We cannot simply solve the problem by distancing ourselves from everything unpopular we did in office.”