Pragmatism guides new Social Democrat leader
15 May 2006, BERLIN - Kurt Beck, 57, who was elected chairman of Germany's Social Democrat Party on Sunday, is a workhorse who describes himself as a "man of the people."
15 May 2006
BERLIN - Kurt Beck, 57, who was elected chairman of Germany's Social Democrat Party on Sunday, is a workhorse who describes himself as a "man of the people."
A member of the SPD since 1972, he commands respect beyond party lines and has drawn praise nationwide for his political pragmatism and ability to communicate. Thick-set and always sporting a stubby grey beard, Beck has been premier of the southern state of Rhineland- Palatinate for 11 years, leading his party to an absolute majority in elections there two months ago.
Though national support for the SPD was in decline, Beck was able to buck the trend, drawing admiration throughout the party. His recipe for success is characteristically non-ideological.
"Down here we talk to one another and come up with answers. It's become the typical way to do things in this state," he says of his consensus-style politics.
An electrician by training, Beck is equally at home talking to local wine-growers or meeting with industrialists and senior politicians.
The new party leader has avoided being pigeon-holed as a left- winger or right-winger within the SPD, a key qualification in a centre-left party that was at war with itself over former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's pro-business policies.
In November 2003, Beck was elected to one of the national vice- chairmanships of the 142-year-old party.
Last year, he seemed set to become national leader, but stood aside for another much-liked state premier, Matthias Platzeck, so that he could concentrate on the state re-election campaign.
Beck took over as acting chairman on April 10 when Platzeck resigned the party leadership after just 146 days, citing ill-health caused by overwork.
The third SPD party leader in less than a year, Beck has been described as a mediator, not a visionary.
After leaving school young and learning to be an electrician, Beck gained employment at a German Army workshop and attended night school to gain more qualifications.
His path into politics began as a labour leader among the Army's civilian employees. In 1979, Beck was elected to the state parliament and soon became the SPD party whip and then the SPD state general secretary.
He succeeded to the state premiership in October 1994 when his predecessor, Rudolf Scharping, left to take on national office.
Beck works crowds easily and makes a point of attending many of the wine festivals and parades which are popular in his state. Married with one son, he still lives in the small town, Steinfeld, where he grew up and where he was for a time mayor.
His affection for his home state is such that he says he wastes no time in Berlin after SPD meetings in the capital, but always grabs the first available domestic flight home.
As leader, that may have to change, since the party needs to shake itself out of a malaise.
Traditionally the party of Germany's urban labour force, the SPD still has more than half a million card-carrying members but is only a shadow of its former self, gaining only one third of the vote at Germany's federal general election last year.
Its current relatively harmonious coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats has left many voters wondering whether the two parties, longtime arch-rivals, really differ so much in substance.
In a speech to the party congress which elected him on Sunday, Beck pledged allegiance to the coalition, but vowed to restore Social Democratic values and give the SPD a stronger profile as a left-of-centre party.
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