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Heads start rolling in Germany's SPD after brutal loss at the polls

The big losers of Germany's general election were the Social Democrats; a miserable showing pushed them into the opposition for the first time in 11 years. In the wake of electoral disaster, heads have begun to roll.

Steinmeier and Muentefering looking depressed at a press conference

Muenterfering, right, and Steinmeier: uncertain of the party's future direction

The big losers of Germany's latest general election were the center-left Social Democrats; double-digit losses at the polls shunted them into the opposition for the first time in 11 years. In the wake of electoral disaster, heads have begun to roll.

The SPD started a round of heavy soul searching - and some related position-jostling - after it lost 11 percentage points in Sunday's election to pull just 23 percent of the votes. Their loss allowed Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) enough seats to pick a new coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP.

Early on Tuesday, Party Chief Franz Muentefering said he would step down at the party congress in mid-November to make way for some new blood at the top of the Social Democrat hierarchy. Muentefering had returned to active politics just a year ago, after a nearly three year pause.

"I have made it clear that I am aware of my responsibility as party leader," Muentefering told journalists in Berlin on Tuesday.

Hubertus Heil portrait

Heil is the latest casualty of the election fiasco

Another shamefaced withdrawal came later on Tuesday, when General Secretary Hubertus Heil said he, too, would step aside in November. Observers say the most likely candidate for his spot is Deputy Party Chief Andrea Nahles, who comes from the far-left branch of the SPD.

The outgoing Finance Minister and Deputy Party Chair Peer Staeinbrueck then said he was stepping down from all his party positions.

Turbulent times ahead

The early withdrawals point to a turbulent period of change ahead for the newly humbled SPD.

For one thing, as shocked party leaders pick themselves up and dust themselves off in the wake of their worst-ever postwar campaign showing, the SPD may reconsider its relationship to the radical-left Left party.

Steinmeier and Muentefering giving speeches after the loss

Steinmeier cannot think his way out of this debacle

The SPD is expected to finalize its staffing decisions in the next two weeks. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose campaign for chancellor was so lackluster that it was repaid by Germany's lowest-ever voter turnout, was hoping to become the new parliamentary party chief, replacing Peter Struck, who's retiring, as the party's leader in the Bundestag. The party executive committee has agreed to the plan.

But a chorus of voices from within the SPD are hoping to change that course of events. In Berlin, hecklers within the party - led by Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit - are agitating for a radical new beginning.

Calls for change at the top

According to an internal paper put out by the Berlin SPD and cited on Berlin broadcaster rbb-Inforadio, Wowereit and his colleagues say only if all three top politicos - Muentefering, Steinmeier and Struck - step down can the party regain credibility.

The SPD's leader in the Berlin Senate, Michael Mueller, told rbb: "We want new faces and new names. A generational change has to be felt personally, and now."

Currently, the outgoing Environment Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who campaigned on a strong anti-nuclear message, is seen as a front-runner for the party leadership.

Muentefering cites voter apathy

For his part, Muentefering denied that the SPD's unpopularity was personality-driven or the result of a bad election campaign, although he did acknowledge there had been a "loss of trust and credibility" in the party.

Rather, he chalked up the disastrous result to apathy after the SPD spent 11 years in government: "We lost to a high degree to non-voters," Muentefering told reporters.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit

Berlin's Klaus Wowereit is calling for a fresh start

Whether or not that is true, one thing is certain: After splits opened up between the SPD and its traditional blue-collar voter base over social-welfare cuts carried out when it held power under ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, smaller parties stepped in to suck energy and votes away from the Social Democrats.

Shift to the left?

On Sunday, Oskar Lafontaine's Left party saw its position confirmed as the fourth largest group in the Bundestag, with 11.9 percent of the vote. The eco-friendly Greens saw a two-percentage-point rise, to 10.7 percent.

"The Left Party has definitively changed the German party system," a jubilant Lafontaine told reporters.

Based on the election showing, some observers predict the Social Democrats will need to look leftward for inspiration in the future - as indeed the likely replacement of Heil with Nahles shows.

Oskar Lafontaine

The Left party's Lafontaine got his message to voters

Hans Vorlaender, a political scientist at the University of Dresden, told Reuters news service: "If they want to be in power again, the SPD is going to have to shift to the left and reorganize its leadership.

Indeed, in response to relentless attacks by Lafontaine saying the SPD was compromising its working-class values, some left-wing Social Democratic leaders have urged the party to show a more socially responsible side.

But the party has also faced pressure from its conservative flank not to buckle to irresponsible populism.

"There will need to be a balance between the left of the party and those who supported the policies enacted under Schroeder," Vorlaender told Reuters.


Editor: Nancy Isenson/Michael Lawton

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