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Germany

Social Democrats Look for Way Forward

Kurt Beck said he won't resign as head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) despite ongoing political chaos in Hesse. Beck attempted to refocus his party, which has been in disarray in recent weeks.

Kurt Beck gives the thumbs up sign

Kurt Beck wants to stay in the driving seat

There have been calls for Beck's resignation in recent weeks as the SPD has floundered in a political quagmire in the western German state of Hesse. The SPD has been in an uproar over the decision to rely on the Left party in order to form a government in the region.

Andrea Ypsilanti, the SPD candidate for Hesse's top post, broke a pre-election pledge not to make any kind of political deal with the Left party, which is made up of former communists and far-left former SPD members. Her about face has enraged some SPD members.

Beck, who has been out with the flu for two weeks, attempted to downplay the divisions in the SPD and said he would not quit on Monday, March 10. Beck also denied that he had broken his word by agreeing to tolerate deals with the Left at a state level.

"Parties must be able to adjust to new situations," Beck said. "I don't think they lose their credibility by doing that."

Left seen as adversary

A banner reading Die Linke

The Left is making inroads in western Germany

Beck did concede Monday that the SPD's attempt to stifle the rise of the new Left party has failed. Beck said that while he will tolerate partnerships at the local level, he will not involve the party in a future national government.

"The Left is an adversarial party and that is how it will stay," Beck said.

Beck cited "irreconcilable differences" between the SPD and Left in financial, social and foreign policy.

Currently, the SPD is the junior coalition partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The "grand coalition" has left the SPD with a bit of an identity crisis as approval ratings continue a downward slide.

A dimap Infratest poll showed Beck would get 20 percent of German votes if the election were held today, compared with more than 60 percent for Merkel.

Some SPD members still angry

A hand holding cards against a red background that reads 'SPD'

The SPD has been looking for new partners

Beck has gotten support from some senior party members. But others want him to resign and let someone else take on Merkel in the general elections next year.

"To my mind, his candidacy for the chancellorship is out of the question as he will not get over the credibility crisis," the SPD's Gerd Andres told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Der Spiegel newsmagazine quoted Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck as saying the SPD had handed the next election to the CDU.

Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said Beck's press conference Monday was attempting a "damage control exercise."

Niedermayer predicted Merkel's CDU will revive the issue of Beck’s credibility ahead of the next federal elections, which must be held by September 2009.

When asked Monday if he had lost his authority over the SPD, Beck said: "The only thing I have lost in the last two weeks is 5 or 6 kilos."

Looking for a way forward in Hesse

Andrea Ypsilanti

Andrea Ypsilanti has been making headlines

On Sunday, Beck had suggested during crisis talks with party leadership about the Hesse situation that Ypsilanti withdraw. But Ypsilanti beat him to the punch by confirming Monday that she would be shelving her candidacy.

Events took a dramatic turn Friday when Dagmar Metzger, one of the SPD's members of the state legislature, said she would not play along with Ypsilanti's moves to do a deal with the Left party.

Over the weekend, Ypsilanti's supporters put pressure on Metzger, calling on her to rethink her decision or resign from parliament and allow a replacement legislator to vote for the party leader as premier.

Beck said Monday he would not pressure Metzger to resign.

The lure of the Left

Old houses in Lauterbach, Hesse

Who will govern Hesse?

SPD officials, however, are not ruling out that Ypsilanti, a member of the party's left-wing, might have another shot at the premiership in May.

Ypsilanti's tactics have opened up a debate in SPD on the future course of the party after gains by the Left in recent state elections ploughed up the German political field, forcing the main parties to seek arrangements with smaller parties they had previously kept at arm's length.

Ypsilanti is dependent on the support of the Left to become premier after her party secured 42 seats in the 110-seat state legislature in Jan. 27 elections, level with the Christian Democrats, led by incumbent Premier Roland Koch.

With the Free Democrats, the CDU's preferred partner, securing 11 seats and the Greens nine, neither of the main blocs could form a majority government. The Left holds the balance with six seats.

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