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A Party in Crisis

September 6, 2008

Germany's Social Democrats are to hold a meeting on Sunday, Sept. 7, amid a serious identity crisis. The party is unsure of its future direction -- and there's only one year to go before the next federal elections.


The figures are alarming. In recent months, surveys show that not even 30 percent of the electorate are backing the Social Democrats (SPD).

A new survey in Saarland, where a regional parliament is to be elected next August, reveals that the SPD is only the third most popular party -- not only far behind the ruling Christian Democrats but also trailing the Left Party.

For the first time ever in western Germany -- where unlike in eastern Germany it cannot rely on the support of former Communist party members -- the Left Party is more popular than the SPD.

Home territory

It has a lot to do with the fact that Left Party chairman Oskar Lafontaine was a beloved state premier back in the days when he still belonged to the Social Democrats.

He has tilted his cap at this office once again. But if he wins four weeks before the Bundestag election, the repercussions will be fatal -- especially since elections will also be taking place in Thueringen and Saxony on the same day as in Saarland. In these states, the SPD is almost guaranteed to limp in third place behind the Left Party.

The SPD's situation might have reached boiling point, but, in fact, the party's crisis is a long-term one.

Deutsche Welle's Peter Stuetzle
Deutsche Welle's Peter Stuetzle

Party chairman Kurt Beck, currently in an uncomfortable position between a rock and a hard place, is the party's third leader since Gerhard Schroeder stepped down in 2004 in a bid to salvage the chancellorship.

Schroeder's reform package was seen by some as an effective way of tackling unemployment, but by others as having deepened Germany's social divisions. His reforms are most certainly the reason for the emergence of the Left Party as a force to be reckoned with both in eastern and western Germany.

Troubles go way back

But the roots of the crisis go even deeper. The party had already chewed up and spat out four chairmen during the 1990s, and Gerhard Schroeder's victory in 1998 was not necessarily his own achievement, but proof that the public was fed up with Helmut Kohl after 16 years in power.

The SPD had long been struggling with the difficulties of reconciling the traditional workers' party as it had existed in industrial times with the demands of a service-oriented society in a globalized world. Gerhard Schroeder attempted to solve the problem his way -- and the rest is history.

Against this background, the latest round of in-fighting merely adds to the burden. But it is all the SPD can do right now if it is to find its way ahead of the Bundestag elections. If it results in a clear goal, shared by the party, then it is a good thing.

Peter Stuetzle heads DW-RADIO's capital office in Berlin. (jp)