By quitting as the head of the Social Democratic Party on Friday, Gerhard Schröder left an office he hardly loved. Besides, his likely successor could help build party support for Schröder's equally unloved reforms.
Franz Müntefering is supposed to mend things: The leader of the Social Democrats’ (SPD) parliamentary group will now likely be elected party chief of Germany’s largest governing party after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder threw in the towel Friday. The move comes barely five years after he took the party’s top job as an almost natural step after his predecessor, Oscar Lafontaine, resigned. Schröder didn’t want to do it, but who else, besides the chancellor, should have taken the position?
Today, the answer is Franz Müntefering. And this time around, it’s perhaps less an inevitable decision than the logical consequence of a party that’s been plagued with diminishing membership and election losses.
There’s never been an emotional connection between Schröder and the SPD party base. That’s underscored by the fact that the chancellor’s reform policies have come up against clear resentment among the party’s core. Criticism can often be heard that social equality has fallen to the wayside. In that regard, Müntefering as party chief won’t change anything either.
However, it could slightly change the mediation problems the chancellor has identified. Proverbially loyal parliamentary group leader Müntefering has, without a doubt, greater chances of influencing the party. The SPD base doesn’t just listen to Müntefering out of duty, but sympathy as well. That could actually lead to the ideal type of division of labor the chancellor desires in his reform process. Müntefering would lobby for acceptance of change within the party while Schröder devises plans for reforms.
At the same time, politics isn’t something easily drafted on the drawing board. Müntefering can be as loyal to the chancellor as he wants, as party leader he will have new and stronger authority – not least vis-à-vis the chancellor. But there are also expectations tied to that, because for the party base, just having a new face at the top isn’t enough in the long term. The grumblers in the party base, especially, will also expect him to influence government policy. And that, one would expect, would be uncomfortable for Schröder. With Müntefering as parliamentary group leader and national party chief, the party now has a second heavyweight next to the chancellor.
It’s also still an open question how much the move will impact the public, who, if you believe the polls, are increasingly turning away from the SPD. That’s an effect of the reform policies – policies, which should not be stopped, according to Gerhard Schröder. Taking this under consideration, a new party chairman alone will have little ability to change anything.
Nor will it lead to better results for the SPD during upcoming elections for European Parliament and in a number of German states. But Müntefering could have a motivating effect on the classic Social Democratic constituency – only that still won’t be enough to create an election success for the SPD.
By resigning from his post as SPD leader, Schröder is taking leave of an unloved office. It really shouldn't be difficult for him, but he’s nonetheless viewed the division of the chancellery and the party chairmanship as problematic in the past. With Schröder loyalist Müntefering in the position, it could function, but Gerhard Schröder shouldn’t be too sure of it, either.