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Germany

Kurt Beck? Who's Kurt Beck?

Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) elected Kurt Beck as its new leader on Sunday. The moderate politician may be popular in Germany, but he's an unknown among Social Democrats in the rest of Europe.

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Kurt Beck will have to work hard to spread his popularity beyond Germany's borders

It didn't take long for Germany's SPD to find a new leader when Matthias Platzeck stunned the party last month, saying he was standing down for health reasons. Within days, the choice of successor fell on Kurt Beck, the bearded 57-year-old premier of the state of Rheinland-Palatinate.

Largely seen as a moderate within the SPD, Beck was voted to the top post with an overwhelming 95.1 percent on Sunday at a special party conference.

Beck's appointment as leader of Germany's oldest political party is a natural choice and doesn't signal a fundamental shift in the party's ideological content, said party researcher Peter Lösche.

Kurt Beck und Matthias Platzeck

Beck, left, with the younger Platzeck

"Beck was the most obvious alternative after Platzeck. No one else in the SPD is as popular and knows the party so well from within," Lösche said, adding that with its 600,000 members, the SPD is a complex and intricate organizational behemoth.

"Platzeck's problem was that he could never really understand the party," Lösche said. Platzeck is the premier of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, and as Lösche pointed out, only 30,000 of the SPD's members come from the eastern part of the country. On the other hand, Beck has so far been a regional leader and therefore has little experience with foreign policy, Lösche added.

A virtual unknown in Europe

Notwithstanding Beck's popularity in Germany, he remains a virtual unknown among Social Democrats in Europe.

"Other big Social Democratic parties in Europe haven't really registered the fact that Kurt Beck is head of the German SPD," said Lösche. "It's just business as usual. Beck stands for continuity, after all."

His appointment stands in sharp contrast to Tony Blair's when he became the successor to British Labor Party head John Smith. "That was an exciting turn of events for the Social Democrats because with Blair's appointment, Labor developed into a completely new party."

Tony Blair besucht Angela Merkel in Berlin

Blair gets along better with Merkel than he did with Schröder, say some observers

Nobody in Britain's Labor Party is really interested in the fact that Germany's new Social Democratic boss is called Kurt Beck, said Charles Lees, political scientist at the University of Sheffield. Much more significant for Labor was the change of German chancellor from Gerhard Schröder to the incumbent Angela Merkel, Lees added.

"Even if nobody will say it publicly, the Blair government gets along much better with Angela Merkel," Lees said. Conservatives such as Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or Spain's José Maria Aznar have been Blair's closest allies on a European level.

Lees pointed out that, at the time when Labor was reinventing itself in the mid-1990s, there were several links and contacts between Social Democratic parties in Europe.

"When we look at the situation today, the Social Democrat family has become much more heterogonous. I would even doubt whether the Social Democrats in continental Europe still regard Blair as a part of the family," Lees said.

National differences

He added that in order to develop the Social Democrat platform and ideology further, exchange between the parties was much more important than prevailing national structures. "Germany's federal structure makes it less attractive than in Britain for the party to move to the center in order to get out of the role of the opposition," Lees said, adding that in times when the SPD played the role of opposition party at the federal level, it at least had access to power on a regional level.

SPD Koalitionsvereinbarung

The SPD is a very different party from Blair's Labour

In addition, German party law which lays down inner-party structures makes it impossible for the SPD to allow a relatively small leading group to push the party in a particular direction, as was the case with Labor.

Angelo Bolaffi, political scientist at the University of La Sapienza in Rome said that dialog between Germany's SPD and Italy's Socialists had also waned. Italy's Communist Party, which despite its name developed into a real Social Democratic party in the 1970s, had close ties to the SPD. But those warm relations have now almost become irrelevant.

"It's a paradoxical development. Europeanness has renationalized the Left," said Bolaffi. "The national parties no longer have any relations with each other -- it's all dealt with in Brussels."

"Curious to meet Kurt Beck"

That's the domain of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament (SPE). The umbrella organization headquartered in Brussels organizes twice-yearly meetings for the top brass of Europe's Social Democratic parties, said SPE spokesman Julian Scola. In addition, there are regular ministerial meetings where Social Democratic opposition spokespersons take part.

Usually, fundamental questions are discussed. Thus, for instance a meeting of finance ministers would involve growth and investment strategies for Europe. "The parties do influence each other mutually," said Scola. "A change in leadership in one party is naturally of interest to leaders of other parties too."

Scola added that Beck's appointment meant that the SPD had an experienced new head.

"He's coming to a meeting of Social Democrat heads in June. The other leaders are naturally very curious to meet him."

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