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Opinion: Schröder Can't Avoid Party Strife

German headlines are full of the Social Democrats. But Chancellor Schröder is largely ignoring the fierce exchanges that have been going on in his party since dissenters opposed him in an important vote in the Bundestag.

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Will the SPD eventually give Gerhard Schröder a red card?

Social Democratic Party Head Gerhard Schröder is known as a pragmatist. Recourse to programmatic, theoretical considerations is not his thing. When asked what the point of reforming the welfare state is, Schröder refers to the sheer necessity caused by the welfare system's precarious financial situation. If the others -- the opposition Christian Democrats and business-friendly Free Democrats -- were to do the dirty work, the cuts into the social safety net would go even deeper, he suggests.

Naturally, the chancellor faces objections, even from among his own ranks. On occasion they are more visible, like on Friday when the Bundestag voted on health care system reform or the resignations of party membership. The government's current course also partly explains the scathing election failures this year.

Redefining "social justice"

Schröder knows his party inside and out -- no question about it. That's why it's all the more astonishing he has so far only grudgingly catered to the atmosphere in the SPD and among the party faithful. Social Democrats have the right to be included when their top representative starts to redefine the concept of "social justice." This is the real issue if, for example, the German pension and healthcare systems increasingly require private provisions to deliver the same level of services they once did in the past.

To Schröder, these may only be the unavoidable consequences of difficult finances and outdated structures. But for large parts of his party, it’s a departure to faraway shores they thought they had put behind them long ago, and at a time when the promise of more jobs seems very fuzzy indeed.

Schröder is concerned about jobs more than anything else, it seems. It doesn't matter that the SPD has gotten used to having a party head and chancellor who doesn't believe in having a political vision. The party itself wants to see that social democratic policies have a purpose that is worth fighting for. The premise of merely avoiding the worst just isn't enough

Hidden threats

Schröder issuing hidden threats that he will resign certainly doesn't compensate for the shortfall. On a case-by-case basis it allows him to secure majorities in parliament or in the party, but it doesn't earn him genuine loyalty or unanimity. His fellow party members do want to stay in power -- they would rather shape things than be in the opposition -- but not at any price. The chancellor would be wise not to assume there's no breaking point in the SPD.

Schröder aims to have his most important reform plans accepted by the end of the year. In 2004 there will be a whole series of elections in Germany. The SPD will only survive them credibly if there's tangible change on the labor market. But if, despite the reforms, that is not the case, the Social Democrats will ask themselves what is the point of policies that damage their very identity without having any positive effects.

Then, at the latest, Schröder will have to accept that a political vision may be annoying, but in his party it's indispensable. By then, however, it may be too late.

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