Germany's Social Democratic Party reasserted its commitment to "democratic socialism" Sunday, Oct. 28, as delegates wound up a major congress aimed at reviving the party's flagging fortunes ahead of the 2009 elections.
SPD members voted unanimously in favor of "democratic socialism"
The 144-year-old party approved a new basic party program for only the third time since World War II, reasserting core social democratic values at the end of a three-day congress in Hamburg that saw it take a distinct turn to the left.
"There is no humanity when our actions are not guided by solidarity," party chairman Kurt Beck told more than 500 delegates gathered in Hamburg on the final day of the congress. The program received near-unanimous support.
German Chancellor Merkel criticized the shift in her coalition partner as a "reversion to socialism."
"We do not need a return to socialism like the Social Democrats want -- we had enough of that in the GDR," said Merkel, referring to communist East Germany where she grew up.
SPD votes to roll back reforms
Merkel's conservative Christian Union and the SPD, its traditional rival, formed a left-right coalition in November 2005 after a bitterly fought, inconclusive general election. Two years on, Merkel's alliance is riding high with about 39 percent support versus just 26 percent for the SPD.
"King Kurt'" remains the undeclared candidate for chancellor for the 2009 election
Kurt Beck, the main architect of the shift who was reelected with a thumping majority, said the party's revised course did not mean a break with the past but rather an attempt to "answer the questions of today and the challenges of tomorrow," Beck said.
The party's new "Hamburg Program" -- updating the 1989 Berlin Program -- contains several references to the term "democratic socialism," which has been controversial within the party over recent years.
During the congress, the SPD voted to roll back some of the harsher aspects of the market reforms implemented under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder four years ago.
Delegates decided in favor of paying unemployment benefit at the full rate to older claimants for longer than previously, easing the transition to retirement at 67 for manual workers and paying child support to the age of 27, rather than 25.
Earlier, in an unexpected move, the SPD voted in favor of introducing a top speed of 130 kph (80 mph) on Germany's famed speed-limit-free autobahns, or motorways, in a bid to cut the country's CO2 emissions from cars.
"A symbolic issue"
Germany's powerful car industry has pressured lawmakers not to introduce national speed limits, arguing that high speeds help them sell Mercedes, Porsche and BMW around the world and help protect German jobs.
However a number of studies have shown that speed limits could effectively slash polluting emissions. Environmental groups have said a speed limit would cut vehicle CO2 output by 5 percent overnight and 15 percent long-term once more fuel-efficient cars were used.
At a conference on climate change in Berlin last week, Nobel laureate Al Gore criticized Germany in a speech for not having motorway speed limits.
Germany's speed limit-free autobahns are the envy of the world
The non-binding measure however will be hard to pass into law in the face of opposition by Chancellor Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU), the SPD's coalition partner.
"It's an important symbolic issue," said Environmental Minister Sigmar Gabriel. "But it will probably be hard to pass into law because we won't find a majority for that with [Merkel's] Christian Democrats."
Left-wingers try to derail privatization project
The two-day party conference, which sought ways to pull the SPD out of a poll slump and had been marred by a bitter row over scaling back labor market reforms, also targeted the privatization of Germany's railways, Deutsche Bahn, which aims to raise 3 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in a 2008 initial public offering.
Kurt Beck managed to stave off an attempt by left-wingers in the party to torpedo the privatization project.
Left-wingers had feared SPD ministers would settle on an unacceptable compromise with the Christian Democrats to sell the Deutsche Bahn stake to institutional investors rather than small investors.
Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, a Social Democrat, tried to win support by promising to ensure controls that would prevent hedge funds from breaking up Deutsche Bahn.
"We'll keep the 'locusts' away," he said.
Ultimately the party agreed on a compromise, with left-wingers managing to insert a condition -- "otherwise the SPD rejects the sale of shares" -- into a draft resolution on the privatization.
Merkel slammed for Turkey stance
The conference produced another surprise when Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier rebuked Chancellor Merkel for holding out the promise of EU membership to Turkey for decades, contingent on reforms, but then withdrawing support.
Merkel's party favors a privileged partnership with Ankara, short of membership.
"At the crucial moment they caved in," the normally diplomatic Steinmeier said. "What can I do with a party like the conservatives that acts like that?"
Merkel and Steinmeier have enjoyed a harmonious relationship
In a further sign of tensions between Steinmeier and Merkel, who have cooperated on foreign policy for the past two years, the foreign minister criticized the chancellor's method of talking about human rights in China and Russia through the German media rather than using more effective channels.
"When we speak out for human rights it's not just for a quick headline back home," Steinmeier said, referring to Merkel's recent focus on human rights in China and Russia that has strained relations with both countries.
"No military adventures in Iran"
The foreign minister also voiced concern about US intentions towards Iran.
"We must prevent nuclear weapons in the Middle East. But military adventures are no contribution to a solution," Steinmeier said. "On the contrary, the daily ranting about it only makes a solution more difficult."
But he made clear the need to keep nuclear weapons away from Iran.
Atomic weapons should not land "in the hands of people who deny the Holocaust," he said in a reference to controversial remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"This would destabilize the entire Middle East," he said, stressing that Germany would continue to work towards a diplomatic solution along with the United States, Russia and China.