Crisis-hit German Social Democrats mull leftward shift

1st October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Mirroring the trend across Europe, Germany's main centre-left party suffered a debacle in Sunday's election, in what their luckless candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called a "bitter defeat."

Berlin -- Condemned to opposition after their worst election score in 60 years, Germany's Social Democrats were on Wednesday agonising over the future direction of their party after a leadership purge.

Mirroring the trend across Europe, Germany's main centre-left party suffered a debacle in Sunday's election, polling just 23 percent in what their luckless candidate for chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called a "bitter defeat."

The Social Democrats (SPD) lost votes across the board, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc grabbing 420,000 of their votes and the pro-business Free Democrats winning over 560,000 former SPD faithful.

But most votes were lost by 2.8 million disaffected former SPD supporters abstaining, and by 1.6 million voting for the ecologist Greens or just under one million for the far-left Linke party.

The result relegated the SPD, Germany's oldest party, to the opposition for the first time in 11 years, having governed under chancellor Gerhard Schroeder between 1998 and 2005 and with Merkel in a grand coalition since.

Hard-hitting labour market and social security reforms in the Schroeder years led to a split in the SPD and swathes of the party rank and file joining the Linke, a hotchpotch of SPD defectors and former East German communists.

Although the SPD and the Linke have cooperated in some of Germany's 16 states, joining up with them at federal level has been taboo, but Sunday night's fiasco could now prompt a re-think.

Olaf Scholz, the outgoing labour minister, told the Hamburger Abendblatt daily on Wednesday that an alliance with the Linke was "in principle not excluded."

The Berlin branch of the party also called for a joining of forces with the Linke, which topped 11 percent in Sunday's election, its highest-ever score.

"Because the centre ground has already been occupied by the ... government, the SPD will now have to turn sharply to the left, also with its leaders," commented the Thueringer Allgemeine.

The SPD's historic electoral defeat prompted a bloodbath in the party leadership.

Franz Muentefering, former right hand man of Schroeder, announced he was quitting as party leader, sources told AFP.

General secretary Hubertus Heil said he would not stand for another term, while Peer Steinbrueck, outgoing finance minister, said he was quitting as one of the party's three deputy chairs.

And the replacements touted also suggest the party is looking to the left, with former left-wing firebrand Andrea Nahles tapped as a possible successor to Heil with the leftist mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, also in the running.

Sigmar Gabriel, environment minister for the past four years, is hot favourite to take over the reins of the party at its lowest ebb in decades.

Among the SPD's most pressing issues is its own financial crisis. Haemorrhaging members, the party needs to save some 2.5 million euros (3.6 million dollars) per year, daily Die Welt reported.

Media commentators said the party needs to re-galvanise its traditional heartlands.

"The main problem the SPD has is it doesn't even know itself what it stands for," commented the Luebecker Nachrichten daily.

"It has moved a very long way away from its social roots and democratic traditions," the paper said in an editorial.

"What the SPD really needs is another Schroeder," the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel daily said.

Richard Carter/AFP/Expatica

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