Giving in to calls from his party member to focus more on his duties as German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder on Friday announced he will step down as leader of his Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Doing what's important, reads the SPD poster behind Schröder.
Franz Müntefering, who serves as the leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group, will now also take on leadership of the party. "Leading the SPD is the best job next to being pope," Müntefering said. A special party conference is expected to confirm him as leader in late March.
Sitting next to Müntefering, Schröder announced his decision at a press conference. He said he didn't have enough time as head of government to explain crucial reform plans to party members.
"We've decided to split the work load," the chancellor said, adding that he will concentrate on the business of leading the country. "You can imagine that I'm not happy to relinquish this office, but it's in the interest of the reform process."
Several leading SPD politicians had called on Schröder to do just this. Party members also had critized Schröder for being out of touch with ordinary party members.
Opposition calls move "beginning of the end"
Opposition leaders described the decision as a "bad day for Germany," saying that Schröder's step down as party leader would soon be followed by his departure as chancellor.
"This is the beginning of the end," said Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union. "He's now chancellor by grace of Müntefering. How can he expect to lead a country if he cannot even lead the members of his own party?"
Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the neo-liberal Free Democrats, called on Schröder to "end the government's lingering illness" and hold new elections.
Schröder hopes move will silence critics
The chancellor, however, hopes the move will silence his party critics who oppose his course of painful welfare and economic reforms. After implementing parts of Schröder's so-called "Agenda 2010" package of reforms, the SPD has suffered a string of election defeats. The party continues to wallow near all-time lows in opinion polls.
After his election as chancellor in Oct. 1998, Schröder became party leader on April 12, 1999, replacing his rival Oskar Lafontaine, who was closer to the party's left wing. Lafontaine also stepped down as minister of finance at the time.
Franz Müntefering will now head the SPD.
Müntefering (photo), 64, served as labor, health and social issues minister in Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine-Westphalia before coming to Berlin, where he was federal transport minister before becoming the SPD’s secretary-general in 1999. After general elections in 2002, he took on the position of parliamentary group leader. A supporter of Schröder's reforms, he said he will stay the course.
"I'd like to do my part," said Müntefering on Friday. "We have to undertake certain measures now even if not everyone agrees with them."
As a result of the leadership change, the SPD's current secretary-general, Olaf Scholz, announced he will step down as well. Müntefering said he already had chosen a replacement, but didn't want to reveal the name until a meeting of the party's leadership on Saturday.
No plans to replace ministers
The chancellor did not reveal any plans to reshuffle his cabinet. Several party leaders had asked him to do, saying that some ministers seemed to be worn out.
"I've been receiving advice from self-proclaimed advisers that I didn't ask for, but I don't plan to follow suit," Schröder said on Thursday.