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Opinion: Social Democrats Took First Step in Painful Process

Social Democratic Party delegates missed out on the tough introspection needed at the party congress in Bochum. Some soul-searching is unavoidable as their party finds itself facing fundamental changes.

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Good news for the Chancellor, bad news for the rest of the SPD leadership.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reached his goal at the Social Democratic Party's congress in Bochum. The party followed him, even if not completely as the bad voting results for the SPD general secretary show.

The party base followed, but continued to show a reluctance to recognize the economic reality and the fact that the existing social system can no longer adequately support an aging society.

How strongly the party base holds on to leftist positions was visible in their demand to penalize companies for not providing traineeships. It was proposed in order to calm the party's leftists and take wind out of the discussion about the party's social democratic foundation.

Chancellor shines under pressure

The expectations of this congress were high; the pressure on Schröder, immense. He was supposed to work a miracle and embolden the nervous party base with more political will. In the face of sinking popularity polls, lost elections and shrinking party membership lists, it is urgently needed.

The chancellor tried to focus on the future. He did this with verve and earnestness, while at the same time staying true to himself. He appeared authentic in his speech before the party in which he urged a will to change and proposed a vision of society with a quality educational system. The party base responded positively.

It was revealing at this meeting that the delegates chose to personalize the main issues. Instead of holding a serious discussion on the important points, such as the cutting of benefits for retirees, the unemployed and health-insured, the party faithful took their frustration out on the party leadership.

Party leadership suffers

While Schröder was confirmed as party chief with a passable result, General Secretary Olaf Scholz and Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement were just barely re-elected to their positions. Both embodied the reforms, the Agenda 2010 program, that the party is so split over. SPD Parliamentary Leader Wolfgang Thierse was right when he said that the delegates missed out on the opportunity to "let the sparks fly" while discussing the reforms so that they could be at peace with themselves when they handed in their votes.

Did the party leadership succeed in sending a positive signal as they had planned? There was definitely no fanfare to be heard in Bochum. But this congress was an important step in the re-evaluation process that must take place in the face of an economic reality in which old concepts don't work.

Introspection begins, quickly

The SPD must not only examine its party image, it has to analyze the basic problems within the party. That includes above all the question on whether the communications structure between the party leadership and the base work. The party must also solve two very pressing problems: the lack of younger people in the leadership ranks and the sinking party membership.

Sigmar Gabriel, the heavyweight from Lower Saxony, called the party congress "a bit thin" because the statements didn't produce the right kind of tone or even fruitful discussion that will be necessary to clear up some of the internal issues facing the party.

The SPD's inability to produce a modern political concept for the 21st century during their years in the opposition has come back to haunt it. They avoided formulating a realistic concept for the actual effectiveness of the social welfare state, as North-Rhine Westphalia's Premier Peer Steinbrück admitted. The realization comes late. But the Bochum party congress shows that the party realizes it has a lot of difficult work in front of it. It's a painful process, but for a party responsible for governing the country, it is unavoidable.

  • Date 19.11.2003
  • Author Verica Spasovska
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4Lpz
  • Date 19.11.2003
  • Author Verica Spasovska
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4Lpz