Battle on for soul of Germany's Social Democrats

9th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

9 October 2007, Berlin (dpa) - A battle is on for the soul of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD).

9 October 2007

Berlin (dpa) - A battle is on for the soul of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Party chairman Kurt Beck is seeking to return the party to its roots with calls for higher benefits for older workers who have lost their jobs and for retaining 65 as the retirement age for those in heavy work.

SPD heavyweight Franz Muentefering, who serves as labour minister and vice-chancellor, insists the party must stick to the reform agenda that he helped draft four years ago to make the German economy fit for the 21st century.

Two years as the junior partner in Christian Democrat (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel's broad coalition have done the traditional party of the left few favours.

After securing almost as many votes as Merkel's party in the September 2005 elections, the SPD is now a full 12 percentage points behind in the polls just after the halfway point in the electoral cycle.

Muentefering accused Beck of making a "serious mistake." His policy "U-turn" ran the risk of undermining the SPD's "capacity to govern," the vice-chancellor said.

He hinted that his party chairman was pursuing a "populist" course and was seeking to outflank the Left Party - which draws most of its backing from voters in formerly communist East Germany who feel left out of the mainstream of national politics.

But SPD parliamentary head Peter Struck came out in support of Beck. Muentefering would have to accept decisions taken at the party congress, he said.

The SPD is deeply divided over the reforms introduced when the party was the driving force in a governing coalition with the Greens under Gerhard Schroeder from 1998 to 2005.

Political commentators warned that Muentefering would consider resigning if the reforms he helped to draft under Schroeder were reversed.

He is adamantly opposed to Beck's proposal to allow workers older than 50 to draw benefits close to 70 per cent of their former earnings for two years rather than 18 months.

And he is also against reversing a decision to raise gradually the retirement age to 67.

Schroeder's reforms, coupled with a global economic boom, have helped slash German unemployment to 3.5 million, its lowest level in 12 years. More people are in work than in the past 16 years, and German firms are facing staff shortages in key sectors.

The outlook remains promising, despite signs that the world economy might be faltering.

Muentefering sees these figures as clear evidence that the reforms have worked.

But Beck points to an unemployment fund in surplus and says these benefits should be distributed to those who have worked in the past, saved for lean times and now find themselves jobless.

He has received strong backing from those on the left.

Ottmar Schreiner, head of a left-wing pressure group within the SPD, spoke of "millions of people who go home on poverty wages, 700,000 who have full-time jobs but earn less than existence minimum."

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, an SPD member with a high national profile, predicted the conference would back its chairman.

But SPD ministers - Beck as premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate is not a cabinet member - tend to back Muentefering.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an intimate of Schroeder's when he was chancellor, and abrasive Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck are reported to be behind retaining the reforms.

Spokesmen for the two ministers declined to comment, saying the matter would be resolved at the party conference in Hamburg on October 27 and 28.

Muentefering appeared increasingly isolated in his adamant refusal to countenance backtracking on the reforms, but his spokesman rejected persistent speculation that he could resign over the issue as "utterly pointless."

"Mr Muentefering remains at his posts. That is the position at the moment and will continue to be so," Stefan Giffeler said.


Subject: German news

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