After his resignation as Social Democratic Party chairman on Friday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Saturday named his likely successors, who he hopes will bring the party together on difficult reforms.
Does the SPD still see clearly?
These are days of surprise in the corridors of the Germany’s governing party, the Social Democrats. Few had any idea on Friday morning that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would resign from his post as head of the Social Democratic Party and hand the reins over to Franz Müntefering, the party’s parliamentary group chairman. Then, on Saturday, he named a successor for the party's luckless general secretary, Olaf Scholz.
"On March 21, the SPD is going to call a special party conference," Schröder told reporters Saturday. "The party executive will unanimously nominate Franz Müntefering as its new party chairman. And the party executive will also nominate Klaus Uwe Benneter as the SPD’s new general secretary with the same number of votes."
A new deputy
56-year-old lawyer Benneter, also a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, is also a close friend of Schröder. During the turbulent 70s, the two were active together in the SPD’s Young Socialists at a time when the SPD’s youth group had taken an extreme left political course. At one point, Benneter was even temporarily banned from the party because he had spoken out in favor of cooperation with communists.
Today’s an altogether different story. These days, Benneter (photo) calls for deep cuts into Germany’s social system, for reforms of the labor market and public healthcare system – all initiatives that have drawn heavy criticism from the Social Democrats’ party base and voters. Together, Benneter and Müntefering are expected to bring the party’s traditional leftist core into line with the government’s planned reforms.
Müntefering calls for broad party debate on reforms
Müntefering said Saturday he wanted to speak clear language about "equitableness," one of the core principles of European social democratic movements.
"That’s not just a saying," Müntefering said, "rather, it is something that has always been a deep part of this party’s history. Whoever speaks of ‘equitableness’ has to start with equal opportunities. And they have to start with the fact that that is not functioning in the scope that we desire. We’ve spoken of our solid determination to create a situation where young people in this country aren’t able to fall from school desk to the unemployment rolls. The situation can’t stay as it is."
Speaking on a handful of German public broadcasting stations on Saturday, Müntefering said he wants to involve the party in the government’s reform policies more than in the past, admitting to ARD that the reform policy negotiations within the party had been "suboptimal." In the future, he said reforms needed to be prepared more "cautiously." In an interview with ZDF, he said he intended to open an intensive debate within the party about planned reforms while at the same time standing shoulder to shoulder with the government.
A deft political move?
The first reactions coming out of the party this weekend suggest Schröder made a deft political move by resigning from his position as party chairman. The chancellor made clear on Saturday that the party reins would soon be tightened, and that even in his cabinet there was no breathing room left for error. In other words: controversial members of the cabinet, like Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe who has overseen the trouble-plagued implementation of tolls for heavy trucks and transports on Germany highways, are now on probation. Indeed, in recent weeks the pages of Germany's top newspapers and magazines have been filled with speculation of a possible shakeup of Schröder's cabinet.
Schröder said the party needed to put its collective energy toward the different tasks required for safeguarding and implementing the reform process.
Opposition: SPD falling apart
The minority opposition, neo-liberal Free Democratic Party immediately criticized Benneter’s nomination, lambasting the move as a signal that the SPD is shifting to the left. And Dieter Althaus of the Christian Democratic Union said that the decision by the SPD to appoint a relatively unknown politician to the position of general secretary showed how difficult it had become for the party to find leaders.
Earlier, CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel and the head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, Edmund Stoiber, both said Schröder’s resignation marked the "beginning of the end" of the party.