With Merkel in trouble, Germany's opposition smells blood
Germany's Social Democrats set their sights Sunday on a weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel, a year after losing power with its worst election result in the postwar era.
"Almost a year ago at the general election we got a wake-up call that was painful," SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles told an extraordinary party congress in Berlin.
"I can say that in the past year we have achieved things. We are united, dear comrades. We have developed common positions and we will not allow ourselves to become divided again."
The Social Democrats were in government in Europe's biggest economy between 1998 and 2009, first under Gerhard Schroeder with the Greens until 2005 and then as junior partners to Merkel's conservatives.
After her 2009 election victory, Merkel ditched the SPD in favour of what she called a "dream coalition" with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).
But the past year has been anything but plain sailing.
Her ministers have descended into name-calling as they publicly squabble over practically every item on their coalition agreement, leaving the government -- and the 56-year-old Merkel -- looking to many voters indecisive and weak.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the FDP have seen their poll ratings nosedive. In May a disastrous election in Germany's most populous state resulted in the coalition losing its majority in the federal upper house.
In 2011, things could get worse. And the Social Democrats can't wait.
Six more of Germany's 16 states hold elections next year, the most important in Baden-Wuerttemberg in March where the CDU could find itself out of government for the first time in half a century.
However, the SPD has failed to gain from Merkel's woes so far.
The centre-left party, Germany's oldest, was hammered in last year's general election, scoring just 23 percent of the vote.
Towards the end of the SPD's 2005-2009 "grand coalition", swathes of disaffected left-wing voters abandoned the party in favour of Die Linke, a party made up of former East German communists and disaffected SPD members.
Its poll ratings have stayed stubbornly weak, and surveys indicate that it is more the Greens, helped by public opposition to Merkel's plans to postpone the date Germany abandons nuclear power, who are on the rise.
For Manfred Guellner, head of polling institute Forsa, years of structural problems have depleted the SPD of talented personnel at the local level to keep it in power in its traditional strongholds, such as cities.
It has also become distracted away from "decisive issues voters care about: problems in the labour market, the economy, education, pensions, integration of foreigners," Guellner told AFP.
Party leader Sigmar Gabriel called for a return to the SPD's core values in a rousing speech lasting almost two hours.
"Social differences, inequalities and unfairness in Germany remain the most important challenges for the SPD," he told the conference.
"Environmental protection has been part of our party programme for a long time but there is one area where we are particularly needed, because we understand more about it than others in Germany and Europe.
"This is making sure that performance and work is worth it for everyone in our society. That education and advancement is possible for all ... whatever their background."
He did not stop short of criticising the Greens, who according to a poll last week are now neck-and-neck with the SPD and who may even beat them in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
"The Greens have become ... a surface to reflect all possible complaints, even contradictory ones," Gabriel said. "But our aim is still to form a majority together in 2013," in the next general election.
© 2010 AFP