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Germany

Germany's Social Democrats Appoint New Leadership Team

Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) endorsed Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, as its candidate to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in the general election next year.

Franz Muentefering and Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the SPD party conference

Muentefering and Steinmeier are the old heads charged with leading the SPD

SPD members elected Steinmeier as the candidate for the chancellery at a special party meeting on Saturday, Oct. 18, by a vote of 469-15 with nine abstentions. Steinmeier ran unopposed.

Delegates were also set to elect Franz Muentefering as the party's new leader. He is also unopposed.

Steinmeier told delegates that "hope and confidence are back." He called the Social Democrats the right party for the country in a time of financial crisis.

The party was also appointed Franz Muentefering its new national chairman. Unopposed, he won the vote with 403 of 475 votes.

End to party turmoil

T-shirts with pictures of Steinmeier printed on them

The SPD has its first round of Steinmeier merchandising ready

The leadership change follows the resignation six weeks ago of Kurt Beck, a state premier who failed as party leader to boost public support for the centre-left party, which rules Germany in an uncomfortable coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

The big parties' weak 2005 showing, with 35 percent of the votes for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU, and 34 percent for the SPD, forced them into a coalition they hope will become history at the polls on Sept. 27, 2009.

Steinmeier, a grey-haired and bespectacled lawyer, was a longtime aide to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and has little electoral experience, but he has enjoyed high personal ratings in public surveys since becoming foreign minister.

The party's dismal rating in opinion surveys -- it has not exceeded 27 percent in Infratest Dimap weekly polls since March -- prompted the ouster of Beck.

SPD stalwarts feared Beck, premier of the Rhineland Palatinate, lacked the stature and popularity to challenge Merkel at the polls.

Germany's economy is expected to stagnate next year, denying the incumbent parties the benefit of any feel-good factor.

Coalition parties drawing up plans for election

Steinmeier and Angela Merkel in front of thier party logos

Colleagues now, rivals soon: Steinmeier and Merkel

The coalition is expected to become fractious next year as the two parties jostle for position, but feuding between the SPD's left and right wings has eased in recent months as the SPD's star has sunk.

The SPD has been alarmed by the rise of the Left Party, which surged to 13-percent national support this week.

The Left is an alliance of disaffected former Social Democrats and easterners with their political roots in the old communist party.

Commentators say the SPD faces a dilemma: more centrist policies would frighten working-class voters and indirectly aid the Left, but more left-leaning policies or an alliance with the Left would push centrist voters into Merkel's arms.

The SPD conference, attended by more than 500 delegates, was especially called to appoint the two leaders, not debate new policy.

Key planks in its 2009 election platform are likely to be set next year.

Muente recalled to bring party together

Franz Muentefering

The popular Muente will attempt to unify the SPD

Muentefering, a respected former German labor minister, was party chairman under Schroeder and returned to a leadership role in the party as a unity figure to take charge as the SPD cranks up its election campaign.

The decision was taken before Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck shot to the fore as the most visible Social Democrat in the Merkel government by announcing bank bailouts and campaigning for stricter world rules on the finance industry.

The SPD has split the roles of national chairman and of candidate for chancellor several times in its history, but the repeated changes in post since 2004 have been unprecedented.

In short succession, the position has been held by Schroeder, Muentefering, Brandenburg Premier Matthias Platzeck and Beck.

Muentefering resigned the post in late 2005 after a dispute with senior SPD officials, but that feud had been forgiven.

Last year he retired from public life to care for his dying wife, Ankepetra, then returned to active politics after her death.

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