SPD reshuffle signals shift to center
The German party nominates Steinmeier, ditches Beck at their party congress.
Berlin -- Germany's ailing Social Democratic Party (SPD) rang the changes Sunday, repositioning itself ahead of a general election just 12 months away by nominating charismatic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to take on the popular Christian Democrat (CDU) chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The SPD leadership also recalled a 68-year-old veteran to reorganize the demoralized party machine in the shape of Franz Muentefering, who is to replace Kurt Beck, the embattled leader of Rhineland-Palatinate, as SPD federal chairman.
While Steinmeier's nomination as chancellor candidate ahead of Beck had long been anticipated, Muentefering's return to top-level SPD politics came as a bombshell.
Both decisions signal a clear shift toward the center ground of German politics and away from any flirtation with The Left party.
The double decision emphatically revives the era of Gerhard Schroeder, the SPD chancellor who preceded Merkel and who is associated with pragmatic pro-market reforms at home and a foreign policy strongly independent of the United States.
Steinmeier was Schroeder's chief of staff virtually throughout the seven years of his chancellorship, while Muentefering, serving initially as labor minister and then as head of the SPD caucus in parliament, played a key role in pushing through Schroeder's controversial reform package.
The moves are an attempt to revive the fortunes of the traditional party of the German left, which is currently hovering near 25 percent in opinion polls under Beck's lackluster leadership.
By contrast, Steinmeier has the highest popularity rating of any German politician, hitting a 67 percent "satisfaction" rating in a poll last week conducted for national public broadcaster ARD, ahead of Merkel with 63 percent.
Muentefering, who disappeared from the political stage last year to care for his terminally ill wife, came in at an astonishing 62 percent, following a barnstorming speech to the party faithful in Munich's Hofbraeukeller in the middle of the week. Beck was off the scale.
In the speech, made ahead of the Bavarian states election at the end of this month, Muentefering highlighted Schroeder's achievements, urging SPD members to be proud of his Agenda 2010 reforms.
The program, which slashed Germany's generous social benefits system, are credited with cutting unemployment by 2 million over the past three years and with setting the federal budget on course for balance by 2011.
Muentefering's Munich speech was a clear attack on those on the left of the SPD, who are scathing about the effects of Agenda 2010 on the marginalized in German society.
The Steinmeier-Muentefering duo is unlikely to court The Left party, which draws its main support in the formerly communist eastern states but has eaten away at the SPD's traditional base in western states in state elections over the past year.
Beck had put out indirect feelers to The Left by giving his grudging approval to the SPD in the western state of Hesse to seek an accommodation with the socialists, with the aim of propelling SPD leftwinger Andrea Ypsilanti into the premiership after an inconclusive state election in January.
Beck's zigzag course, following a clear pledge by Ypsilanti ahead of the election not to do any kind of deal with The Left, saw SPD poll ratings fall as low as 20 percent -- the lowest since World War II -- and provoked a crisis within the party.
While clearly buttressing the SPD's "reform" wing, Sunday's moves present risks. Although popular with the wider electorate, Steinmeier has not come up through the SPD ranks and lacks the kind of backing within the party that Beck enjoys.
And the combative Muentefering's clear advocacy of the Schroeder reforms could further alienate those who feel left out of German society and drive them into the hands of The Left, which the ARD poll showed as 13 percent support.
Merkel's aim is to withdraw from the unwieldy "grand coalition" with the SPD after the September 2009 elections and form an alliance with the free-market FDP, her conservative Christian CDU/CSU bloc's traditional partner.
Speaking a day ahead of the SPD reshuffle, she termed her coalition partner "unreliable" and pushed for an alliance with the FDP. The same ARD poll put the CDU/CSU at 36 percent and the FDP at 11 percent, well short of a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
With the SPD at 26 percent and its preferred partner, the Greens, at 10, The Left holds the balance with 13 percent, despite being formed only last year.
-- Rohan Minogue/DPA/Expatica