The Social Democratic Party has been plagued by bad ratings in opinion polls and a large number of membership cancellations. A new party leader, who was elected on Sunday, is supposed to change all that.
Müntefering's optimistic about bringing his party back on track.
The news came as a shock to many in Berlin: On Feb. 6, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced he would step down as SPD leader. He'd been thinking about doing so since the beginning of the year, but no one, not even otherwise well informed political journalists, knew of the plan.
At a press conference on that day, Schröder told reporters that he planned to nominate Franz Müntefering, the SPD's parliamentary leader, as his successor. "I will concentrate on my job as chancellor," Schröder said, adding that as head of government he also had to take care of international issues.
The party leadership approved Schröder's proposal and Müntefering was elected as the new party leader with 95 percent of the votes at a conference in Berlin on Sunday. The 525 delegates are also scheduled to elect SPD parliamentarian Klaus Uwe Benneter (photo) as the party's new secretary-general. Olaf Scholz, who currently occupies that position, had handed in his resignation after Schröder announced he would step down.
Schröders departure is a first in post-war German history: Never before has a chancellor resigned as party leader during his time in office. Schröder became party leader in 1999, but felt he needed to step down after he'd failed to convince party members of the need for social reforms. Tens of thousands of SPD members had dropped out and the party had sunk below 30 percent in opinion polls.
Convincing members of the need for reforms
Many Social Democrats have been struggling to accept far-reaching welfare and labor market reforms introduced during the last year. Müntefering, who comes from the party's traditional wing, is expected to better explain the need for reforms to SPD followers. It seems easier for the 64-year-old former federal minister to connect with the party's base.
Müntefering is known as Schröder's loyal political partner. In the days following the announcement that he would take over as party leader, he made it clear that he would stick to the reforms that have already been undertaken. He's made some changes, however: Against the will of Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement, the government is now planning to penalize companies that don't train young people.
Still, Müntefering hasn't managed to turn things around completely: Several SPD members and trade union functionaries are toying with the idea of founding a new leftist party. Leading SPD politicians have said that such a party could split off enough votes on the left to create a situation where the conservative Christian Democrats would almost win elections by default.
A little blurry now: Gerhard Schröder
In his last days as party leader, Schröder reacted promptly and said the party would initiate proceedings to expel these people. "A party cannot accept it when a few members call on others to leave the party and found a competing organization," he said.