Profile: Kurt Beck, SPD leader-in-waiting

10th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

Kurt Beck looks set to replace Matthias Platzeck as leader of Germany's SPD. Jean-Baptiste Piggin profiles the politician who describes himself as 'one of the people.'

Kurt Beck, 57, who looks set to be appointed leader of Germany's Social Democratics, won an extended term of office as a German provincial premier only two weeks ago.

Beck sees himself as 'one of the people'

Thick-set and always sporting a stubby grey beard, Beck is a workhorse who describes himself as "one of the people". A member of the SPD for 30 years, he has garnered praise nationwide for his pragmatism.

In a rare feat for an incumbent, he scored an increase in support for the SPD in the March 26 election in the southern state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Though national support for the SPD 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.

Many voters were grateful to Beck that the state had been spared the harsh unemployment that has blighted Germany's east and coal-mine regions. Beck, premier for 11 years, was able to shake off a small coalition partner and his SPD can now rule the state alone.

A radio repairman by training, Beck 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.

Five months ago, 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.

At Platzeck's deputy, he became acting chairman Monday and will run for the party leadership at an SPD congress in May.

Beck's father was a brick-mason and the son was originally set to continue as a tradesman, leaving school young and learning to be an electrician. He gained employment at a German Army workshop repairing radio gear 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 the 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.

Political opponents have always found it hard to get their teeth into Beck: he neither antagonizes nor demonstrates naked ambition, yet has won himself a stature that puts him above the fray.

Beck, who is married with one son, 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 pale shadow of its former self, gaining only one third of the vote at Germany's federal general election last year.

Its current harmonious coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats has left many voters wondering whether the two parties, longtime arch-rivals, really differ so much in substance.

10 April 2006

Subject: German news, SPD, Kurt Beck

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