Crisis in Germany’s Social Democratic Party

The big weekend blowout in Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) demonstrates how to cut off your nose to spite your face.  In a series of small, smaller, and smallest secret gatherings, the party leaders — facing a disastrous seepage of members and voters because of their switch rightwards in recent years — got rid of party chief Kurt Beck, who had tried to repair things by risking a few timid steps in a vaguely leftish direction, and put the party’s future into the hands of two unabashed right-wingers, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer and the former Vice-Chancellor and party head Franz Muentefering.

The Social Democrats, in Schroeder’s coalition with the Greens until 2005 and since then with Angela Merkel‘s Christian Democrats (CDU) until next year, have joined eagerly in worsening standards of living for all but the wealthy and then calling that a “reform” package to “create jobs.”  Their reforms, known as “Agenda 2010,” included cutting the rights of the jobless, chopping welfare rates to a minimum and threatening to withhold even these miserly rates unless their victims sold all property of any value, moved if required to cheaper, worse housing and accepted jobs paying as low as 1 Euro an hour.  Or else!  Other measures increased costs for medical and dental care, medicine and medical aids, raised retirement age to 67 (from 65), demanded much higher Values Added Taxes (a form of sales tax) while lowering corporate and inheritance taxes.  Who could be surprised that their poll percentages dropped from the upper 30s to the lower 20s while members quit in droves?

Meanwhile, however, the new party called The Left, a merger of the former largely East German PDS with a small but militant West German party, was finally able to break out of its almost completely East German confines, overcome the 5 percent hurdles to get 53 seats in the all-German Bundestag and win first-time seats in one West German state after another.  First Bremen, then Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse, with more expected when elections are held.  These successes were due In part to the charisma of former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine, known and still respected by many in the western regions.  More important doubtless were the economic downturn hitting ever larger sectors of the population and the program of The Left, which rejected the phony reforms and demanded a minimum wage, a return to full medical coverage, a reversal of increasing college tuition charges, the lowering of the pension age and a withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan and all foreign conflict areas.

All major parties — the CDU, the Free Democrats, the Greens, but above all the SPD — reacted with shock and fright at the rapid progress of The Left.  There was a double response: constant, nasty attacks on The Left in anti-Communist tones recalling the iciest Cold War days, but also weak, clumsy attempts to back off from the nasty “reform” measures enacted by all four traditional parties, banking on people’s poor memories.

The party chairman leading this attempt to give the SPD a new, socially-conscious image was Kurt Beck, a stout, rather jolly fellow with a carefully cultivated three-day beard.  Facing pressures from all sides, he zigged and zagged.  When the election in the state of Hesse ended in a cliff-hanger result, the SPD leader there, a dynamic woman named Andrea Ypsilanti, decided to throw out the ruling, rabid Christian Democratic minister president by joining with the Greens and persuading The Left, whose six seats in the state legislature could just barely provide a one-vote majority, to “tolerate” the ruling coalition with its votes, without being a member of it.  Such a precedent-breaking plan, which would give The Left a kind of veto power, was immediately attacked by nearly everyone, including many SPD leaders.  Beck wobbled again, saying every state had the right to make its own decisions, then adding that it should not be seen as a precedent.  His attempts to keep everybody happy didn’t work.  The mass media attacked him and Ypsilanti mercilessly.

This made it possible for the right wingers to move in with a three-pronged attack.  First, against Ypsilanti — who is currently defying them and carrying on delicate negotiations with The Left in her state — no easy process reconciling all sides.

SPD: Trotz Machtwechsel keine Ruhe (ZDF)

The second attack was against 60 prominent members of the SPD, who demand a new, more social course at home and a less belligerent policy abroad.  At least temporarily they have been silenced — or ignored.

The third attack was against Beck.  Franz Muentefering, who had left politics for some time because of the terminal illness of his wife, now returned with the same brutal self-confidence he had always displayed as Schroeder’s main lieutenant, especially with pushing through the raising of retirement age to 67.  He joined with the silvery-haired and silvery-tongued Steinmeyer, another Schroeder protégé, who helped frame and push though the whole tough Agenda 2010 program.  In the middle of the main secret session this weekend Beck suddenly emerged and left for his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate, without a word or a glance for the assembled eager journalists.  He was thus ousted from national politics — and hopes at least to keep his leadership position in his wine growing little province near the Rhine.  He has since spoken angrily of intrigues against him.

Neither Foreign Minister Steinmeyer, temporary party head and probably the main challenger of Angela Merkel in next year’s national elections, nor Muentefering, who expects to be party chairman after the next party confab in October, plan to even dilute their anti-social policies or their military buildup and engagement in other continents.  They believe that with more discipline and toughness they can regain the ground lost by the SPD in recent years and put up a fight for national leadership after September 2009.

Leaders of The Left have expressed their doubts about this return to tough positions.  “This is a comeback for the Schroeder men,” said Oskar Lafontaine, whose poll results in his home state of Saarland now stand at 24 percent, several points higher than those of the SPD.  “It has been the path of losses and defeats.”  And a main spokesman for The Left called this “a time when we must publicize more than ever before the demands  we have been making.”  It remains to be seen whether the new tough leaders of the SPD can regain any of the grounds they have been losing so steadily in recent years.  The next tests will be in the municipal elections in Brandenmburg and in traditionally right-wing Bavaria on September 28th.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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