Germany's Social Democrats, partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition, elected powerful state boss Kurt Beck as their leader Sunday as he pledged to help the party emerge from her shadow.
Kurt Beck: from electrician to party leader
Beck, the 57-year-old premier of the wine-growing state of Rhineland-Palatinate, succeeded Matthias Platzeck, who stepped down in April after just five months at the helm saying he had suffered a nervous breakdown.
As party chief, Beck becomes the most visible likely challenger to the conservative Merkel in the next general election, scheduled for 2009. Although the SPD and Merkel's Christian Democrats are equal partners in the "grand coalition" that took power in November, the Social Democrats have struggled to sharpen their profile as the chancellor's popularity has soared.
Beck told delegates to a one-day party congress in Berlin that he would assure the Social Democrats were seen the defenders of average voters' interests, before being elected with an overwhelming 95 percent result.
"We want to make this society more just," he said in an 85-minute speech frequently interrupted by applause. "We can become the decisive force in Germany because our ideas are the right ones."
Lots of work ahead
Faced with a slump in the polls against the conservatives, the SPD is seeking a shot in the arm from Beck, a gregarious man of the people who was re-elected with a historic absolute majority in a state poll in March.
His election as SPD leader comes after a week in which tensions between the governing parties boiled over for the first time. Beck, a barrel-chested former electrician, vigorously defended the party against an attack by Merkel, who blamed the often fractious Social Democrats for dragging their feet on key economic reforms.
Platzeck (r.) quit over his health
"We have quite painful decisions to make with a coalition partner that is not particularly keen to make changes," Merkel told a regional meeting of her Christian Democrats.
Beck said Sunday it was his party that shaped key recent measures on family benefits, pensions and tax policy in the interest of social justice.
"There is so much in the coalition agreement that bears our signature that there is no reason at all for us to fear that we will be sidelined," he said.
Beck criticizes Merkel
And in a speech clearly pitched to the leftist rank-and-file, Beck attacked Merkel's frequent championing of freedom as the guiding principle of her policies, saying that government also had a duty to assure fairness.
"We will not allow a debate to triumph in Germany in which freedom and justice are put in a strange slanted relationship to each other, as if boundless freedom would allow justice to simply fall into place. That is wrong -- we want freedom and justice."
Germans are increasingly frustrated that the left-right "grand coalition" has not done more to kick-start Europe's biggest economy and slash the 12 percent jobless rate since taking power in November.
A poll released this week by the independent opinion research institute Forsa showed that only 40 percent of Germans believed Merkel's government was better placed to solve Germany's urgent problems than the center-left administration of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. The figure was down from 47 percent in November, when optimists hoped the coalition could use its overwhelming majority in parliament to push through bold new measures.
Merkel has lauded her working relationship with Platzeck
Despite the frustration, Merkel and her party have fared far better in the polls than the SPD, thanks in part to a number of well-received appearances by the chancellor in foreign capitals. The Christian Democrats are currently polling at 39 percent -- 10 points ahead of the Social Democrats, according to Forsa.
The leftist representative on the SPD executive board, Andrea Nahles, said Beck must launch a debate on party strategy against the conservatives.
"Until then, we will never make it out of the 30 percent hole," Nahles told Sunday's Tagesspiegel newspaper.