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Matthias Platzeck: Quiet Leader Catapulted into the Spotlight

DW staff (jam)November 2, 2005

Germany’s Social Democrats have formally nominated Brandenburg Premier Matthias Platzeck as the new man at the helm of the party. The 51-year-old has experienced an astonishing, and high-speed, rise to the top.

The somewhat retiring Platzeck will be at center stage from now onImage: AP

The post of Social Democratic (SPD) chief had to be filled again when Franz Müntefering announced his resignation from the top job after his hand-picked candidate for the post of general secretary was voted down by the party executive. The step triggered a leadership crisis and party leaders were left scrambling to fill Müntefering's capable and experienced shoes.

The position is to be filled by Matthias Platzeck, whose nomination on Wednesday comes with high expectations. The SPD needs a strong leader to keep sometimes-warring internal factions in line and navigate the tricky waters that are sure to come if the SPD enters into a governing coalition with the conservatives.

SPD, Matthias Platzeck
Platzeck, 51, has three daughtersImage: AP

“I’d be very pleased, if I received the support of delegates at our conference in two weeks’ time and would certainly devote all my energy to the Social Democratic Party," Platzeck said.

Born in Potsdam in then-Communist East Germany, 51-year-old Platzeck has only been a member of the SPD for 10 years. His fast-moving political career only began after German unification and today he enjoys widespread support from all wings of his party, a rarity among SPD politicians these days.

A star in Brandenburg

Platzeck served as Brandenburg's environmental minister from 1990 to 1998 and was elected premier of the largely rural, relatively poor eastern state in 2002.

While other SPD state premiers were losing elections across the country, Platzeck defied the trend, largely by being honest with the citizens there about the region's stagnant economy. Such forthrightness was appreciated and he is still very popular. He turned down the jobs of foreign minister and vice chancellor only weeks ago because he said he did not want to leave the voters in Brandenburg.

"Party chairman is an honorary post, and I’m not going to neglect my main job as state premier of Brandenburg,” he said.

Die SPD-Parteizentrale, das Willy-Brandt-Haus
SPD headquarters in BerlinImage: dpa

But political observers doubt whether Platzeck will be able to shoulder both tasks satisfactorily, considering the difficult phase Germany’s Social Democrats are going through. He’ll have to mend the rift between the left and right wings of the party, especially as the SPD is engaged in difficult coalition negotiations with the conservatives.

Platzeck is a friendly, mild-mannered man who is not known to have any enemies.

"It's hard to find anything to criticize him about because he's hardly ever said anything that could be criticized," Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told Reuters. "Unless he really messes up now, he'll be the SPD chancellor candidate in four years."

Positive qualities

His supporters say he is not one to avoid confrontation over important political issues. He proved himself to be an effective manager after his steady handling of relief efforts during devastating floods in 1997.

Er mag nicht ohne Schröder
Müntefering is the latest who has walked away from the top postImage: AP

He will need those qualities, since he is entering a position which has a history of getting the best of even highly skilled politicians. Since 1987, eight men have led the Social Democrats. His rise to the top means that, for the first time, two easterners will lead Germany's two largest parties. Chancellor-designate Angela Merkel, also 51, grew up just north of Berlin.

Platzeck, a divorced father of three daughters, resembles Merkel in that he appears to lack political arrogance but is a savvy player behind the scenes. Unlike Merkel, though, he is able to use his somewhat home-spun character to connect with voters.

"It’s good for politicians to remember who they’re supposed to serve and that they’re not almighty and the only wise guys around,” he said.