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Opinion: Germany's Election Aftershock

Jens Thurau (ncy)November 1, 2005

Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Franz Müntefering was right to step down after losing the inner-party power struggle over the post of secretary general. But his move leaves more questions open than it resolves.

Müntefering decided it's time to goImage: AP

A pale Franz Müntefering announced on Monday that he would not run for re-election as party chairman at the Social Democrats' convention in mid-November in Karlsruhe. No questions, please. He spoke and then disappeared.

The powerful SPD boss was on the wrong track with his answer to the question of who should succeed luckless Secretary General Klaus-Uwe Benneter. Müntefering wanted his buddy Kajo Wasserhövel to prevail at any price. He brought Wasserhövel's name into play without consulting with the party's bodies and rebuffed all criticism of his personnel suggestion. And he failed terribly.

Kajo Wasserhövel
Kajo WasserhövelImage: AP

Instead of Wasserhövel, left-winger Andrea Nahles will run for secretary general in Karlsruhe. The SPD's top body made the decision with an overwhelming majority -- despite the fact that Chancellor Schröder repeatedly spoke out in favor of Wasserhövel and, thus, spoke out in favor of Müntefering. The board's decision could have consequences that go far beyond the party.

Müntefering's withdrawal is logical. A party boss who doesn't prevail when naming the second-most important position has lost all authority. The party chairman miscalculated the atmosphere in the SPD's top bodies and among the rank-and-file. He unnecessarily forced a test of endurance on his party. With all his power, he wanted to assert his favorite and trusted that the SPD wouldn't leave its boss and top coalition negotiator out in the rain.

SPD torn

But Wasserhövel would have been the future vice chancellor and minister's secretary. His job would have been to keep the SPD firmly in line with the government's course. Müntefering didn't notice how fiercely the SPD has been fighting with having such a role. Simply filling a personnel position became an open critique of the SPD taking the route of a grand coalition with the Conservatives, which Müntefering supports.

Andrea Nahles - Jusos
Andrea Nahles (in foreground)Image: dpa

All 45 members of the party board knew exactly what the price would be. Nominating Nahles (photo) meant completely removing Müntefering. Müntefering, the SPD's central figure in the current coalition talks, explicitly left open whether he would still be part of the cabinet. And that's why there are now more questions than there are answers.

Can Christian Democratic Union boss Angela Merkel keep together the complicated alliance with the Social Democrats without Müntefering? Does the SPD -- for which internally setting the course is more important than successful negotiations about a governing coalition -- even want this alliance? What route will the SPD take now that it's chosen a declared leftist as secretary general? What will the SPD do without Müntefering, the great integration figure of recent years?

Now the voices are reverberating that warned against talking about the grand coalition as a foregone conclusion. What a dramatic defeat for the man who just days ago pundits said had more power than any SPD boss in recent decades. These are exciting times in Berlin.