Merkel urges cooperation after SPD shuffle
Political commentators say cooperation within the unwieldy coalition will become increasingly difficult in the months leading up to the elections.
Berlin -- Christian Democrat (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged continued cooperation with the Social Democrats (SPD) in her grand coalition government Monday, after the SPD named Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to challenge her in German elections next year.
Merkel criticized the weekend maneuvering in her junior coalition partner that saw the popular Steinmeier named as the SPD candidate for the chancellorship and Kurt Beck ousted as party chairman.
The machinations within the SPD were "unworthy" of a broad-church German party and indicated "deep division," Merkel said, following the unexpected shake-up in the SPD hierarchy on Sunday.
Government spokesman Thomas Steg said Merkel and Steinmeier, who also holds the office of deputy chancellor, aimed to focus on the business in hand "until far into next year."
But political commentators said cooperation within the unwieldy coalition would become increasingly difficult in the months leading up to the elections, provisionally set for September 27 next year.
And the chairman of the minority opposition liberal FDP, Guido Westerwelle, called for early elections.
"Germany cannot afford a full year of electioneering between the chancellor and the deputy chancellor," he said.
Ronald Pofalla, general secretary of Merkel's CDU, called on Steinmeier to make clear the SPD's position on pro-market reforms and on its relations with the socialist Left Party, which has eaten into the SPD support base in recent months.
Steinmeier was named the SPD's top candidate in next year's elections at a closed meeting of around 50 top SPD leaders near Berlin on Sunday.
The announcement had been widely anticipated, but Beck's decision to resign as party chairman in favor of veteran SPD campaigner Franz Muentefering shook the German political landscape.
Beck, premier of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, accused others in the party of undermining his position and refused to continue in the national post amid low ratings in the opinion polls.
He is to remain state premier, the state's SPD board said Monday in a show of support.
Federal-level SPD leaders met Monday and formally nominated Muentefering as party chairman, calling an extraordinary general meeting for October 18 to vote on this.
The party also needs to resolve bitter internal divisions over its relations with the Left.
In the state of Hesse, local SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti is seeking an arrangement with the socialists that would propel her to the premiership following inconclusive elections in January in a move seen as hurting the party nationally.
Steinmeier said Monday said the national party had already left that issue up to Ypsilanti. "There is no new situation to decide," he told reporters.
A recent national opinion poll gave Merkel's CDU/CSU bloc 36 per cent to 26 percent for the SPD. The Left was on 13, the FDP on 11 and the Greens on 10 percent.
German business welcomed the changes at the top of the SPD as marking the return of leaders pledged to maintaining the pro-market reforms initiated by the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.
Employers' organization (BDA) head Dieter Hundt noted that Steinmeier and Muentefering were both close associates of Schroeder and worked together on his Agenda 2010 program that slashed social benefits and promoted job creation.
Their appointment offered the chance that the Agenda 2010 program, widely credited with cutting unemployment by 2 million over the past three years and putting the federal budget on course for balance by 2011, would be continued, Hundt said.
German Chambers of Commerce (DIHK) President Georg Ludwig Braun also welcomed the changes as bringing clarity to the party.
The DIHK had long worked effectively with the new duo at the top of the SPD, despite clear differences of opinion, he said.
Muentefering told reporters Merkel's party might dominate the government, "but it does not represent the majority political view." He admitted the SPD trailed far behind, but said it could catch up to the CDU by next year.