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Down-to-Earth Bridge-Builder to Lead Social Democrats

DW staff (ncy)April 10, 2006

Kurt Beck, state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, is said to command respect beyond party lines. That's a quality he'll need now that he's been nominated to be the next chairman of Germany's Social Democratic Party.

Kurt Beck started his career as an electricianImage: AP

Kurt Beck has never expressed the urge to take a greater role in national politics. In November, when he had the chance to become head of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), he stepped aside for Matthias Platzeck to take the job.

It's not that the 57-year old lacks ambition. On the contrary, he worked his way up from being an electrician to premier of the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. He is known for being down-to-earth and pursuing moderate Social Democratic policies. He's not one to experiment, instead introducing change with caution.

As Rhineland-Palatinate premier for 11 years, Beck has led the only coalition between the Social Democrats and the free market liberal Free Democrats. His accomplishments and popularity have been such that in state-wide elections three weeks ago, the SPD garnered an absolute majority which will allow Beck to rule the state alone from mid-May.

Old-school Social Democrat

Beck views communication as the key to his success. He shows no reservations about meeting with industrialists or wine-growers. He regularly makes himself available for meetings with his constituents in his hometown of Steinfeld. Some say there's not a hand in Rhineland-Palatinate he hasn't shaken.

Matthias Platzeck und Kurt Beck: des einen Leid, des andern Freud
Beck with predecessor Matthias Platzeck, who resigned after suffering health problemsImage: AP

He has consistently taken the side of two groups that make up the heart of the SPD: people who are disadvantaged and hard laborers. He's one of the remaining few of a dying species of politicians who have worked as manual laborers before ascending their party's career ladder.

"I fear that in the future hardly anyone with my background will be able to make their way into leadership positions," he has said.

As an active trade union member, Beck joined the SPD in 1972. He was voted into Rhineland-Palatinate's state parliament in 1979 and became SPD parliamentary group leader in 1991. He assumed the premiership of the state when his SPD colleague Rudolf Scharping vacated the position in 1994.

Not in it for power

Beck made a name for himself in the state by expanding school hours from half to full days and helping the state adjust to the closure of US bases there. But the state has also accumulated huge debts, which it is Beck's priority to pay off.

Though it cost the state a lot of money, the passionate soccer fan fought hard to ensure that this summer's World Cup matches would also take place in Kaiserslautern where Beck's eponymous team comes from.

Elsa wirbt für die WM in Kaiserslautern Werbung
Kaiserslautern has been celebrating being named a location for the World CupImage: Stadt Kaiserslautern

Though Beck has shown tenacity, he doesn't see himself as someone who craves power.

"I've never had a feeling of power," he said. "During the time in which I've been premier, since 1994, I have had to swallow more than in the 46 years of my previous life. You have to swallow a lot … when you're the one to make the final decision in all questions."

Last September, he already expressed confidence that he was prepared to take on the extra responsibilities that juggling his premiership and the leadership of the SPD would require.

"I have the strength and the capacity to make an important contribution on the Berlin level," he said.