A Shake-Up in German Politics

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AXEL SCHMIDT / afp / gettty

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin.

Germany's venerable Social Democratic Party (SPD) has become one of the oldest political parties in Europe through a long history of often fruitful internecine battles. But the leadership putsch it underwent on Sunday seemed evidence of weakness rather than a push towards new vitality.

The party has been hemorrhaging members for well over two decades, and this summer it lost its ranking as Germany's biggest mass-membership party, or Volkspartei, to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), with which it governs in an uneasy grand coalition. The SPD continues to lose supporters to the upstart Die Linke (The Left), a party made up of former east German communists and disaffected leftists from the west of the country. According to the latest polls, just 21% of Germans now say they would vote for the party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt if an election were held tomorrow (compared to 37% for Merkel's CDU and 14% for Die Linke). For the past twelve months, the party's top brass had tried to stem those losses by moving the party's policies to the left.

That movement came to an abrupt halt over the weekend with the surprise resignation of the party's combative chief, Kurt Beck. His unseating followed the widely expected anointing of Germany's silver-haired Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, known as the "Graue Effizienz" (a play on the term "Grey Eminence"), as the party's candidate for Chancellor — a post Beck had until recently been eyeing himself. In another unexpected move, the party's former chairman, Franz Muentefering, like Steinmeier a close aide to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was put forward (though not yet formally voted in) to replace Beck as party chairman.

The changes mark the formal beginning of the election season in Germany, culminating in a national election in late 2009. Both Muentefering and Steinmeier are centrists, and while they are likely to strengthen party discipline, their ascendancy could also deepen the rift between the party's center and its disaffected left wing. If the SPD's aim is to mount a unified challenge to Angela Merkel's CDU in next year's election, political commentators are pessimistic.

"This all smells like a putsch rather than a new beginning," Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister and Green Party leader wrote in the weekly Die Zeit. "Compared to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sisyphus would be happy. It will be a tough journey for him and his party, presumably into opposition."

"I can't detect any signs that the left wingers [within the SPD] will be amenable to the change," says Klaus-Peter Schöppner, head of the polling firm Emnid. "Instead I think we are witnessing the calm before the storm." Steinmeier is "hated by the far left of his party," says Schöppner, because he advocated unpopular economic reforms, especially tighter rules on unemployment compensation, under Chancellor Schroeder. Moreover, he will have a hard time challenging Merkel because his specialty has been foreign policy — "an area where Merkel is already stealing all the thunder."

Gerd Langguth , political scientist at Bonn university, calls Steinmeier's appointment "a stop-gap solution, when you get down to it. And if you could speak to him off the record, he'd be the first to acknowledge that. He knows that he is cannon-fodder, the fuel to keep the engine running" until a new generation takes over the party, probably from the left.

The changes caught even some SPD leaders by surprise. Beck was visibly miffed by the way Steinmeier's selection to head the ticket was announced. In a statement on his website, he accused the media and enemies within the party of conspiring against him to give a "false impression" of how that decision was made. In a radio interview on Monday, Andrea Nahles, a close ally of Beck's on the party's left wing, blamed "snipers from his own ranks" for Beck's resignation.

Beck's departure follows a troubled tenure in which he was widely criticized for failing to unite the party's warring camps and for aggressively moving the party towards the left. Beck was seen as close to the party's working class base but unable to hold his own in the rough and tumble of Berlin grand coalition politics. The job may also have been "too much for him intellectually," speculates Langguth. The final blow may have been his decision earlier this year to entertain the prospect of forming a government in the state of Hesse with the minority backing of Die Linke, a party that many of the SPD's old guard leaders, Muentefering among them, will not tolerate.

Steinmeier, a jurist with wide experience in foreign policy and in the chancellery who served as Schroeder's chief of staff, is considered a steady hand on the tiller in turbulent times. Only Merkel scores higher in public opinion polls. But Steinmeier has never run for political office and analysts question whether his current popularity is not more the result of him being foreign minister, a post that traditionally receives high ratings from the public, than his electability. "Who is Frank Walter Steinmeier?" asked Die Welt, a newspaper, in a comment Monday. "He is not unlike Angela Merkel, in that he is often underestimated. She was (former Chancellor Helmut) Kohl's girl. He was Schroeder's man."

The new appointments do not address the party's underlying problem of losing votes to Die Linke, which under party chairman Oskar Lafontaine — himself a former SPD Chancellor candidate — has grown to become the third largest party in Germany in just three years. "Germany's oldest political party hasn't managed to adapt to modern times," says Langguth. "These days, it consists of two wings — the traditionalists and the reformers," and their differences are growing rather than abating.

For years German politics was defined chiefly by the rivalry between the two big people's parties. The arrival of the Green Party in the 1980s and Die Linke in 2005 has divided the field, scattered voters, and made it harder to form a government at the state and federal level. The troubles of the SPD, as dramatically illustrated this weekend, suggest that Germany's political atomization is not over yet.

With reporting by Ursula Sautter / Bonn