Social Democrats in Crisis: Election Results Pose Hard Leadership Questions

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Election results for Germany's Social Democrats are the worst in the party's post-WWII history. Leading candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier and party boss Franz Müntefering say they want to lead the SPD into forceful opposition. But inside the party questions are already being asked about who might replace them.

The biggest loss: The Social Democrats are asking whether their leaders -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Franz Müntefering -- are to blame for Sunday's disastrous showing. Zoom
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The biggest loss: The Social Democrats are asking whether their leaders -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Franz Müntefering -- are to blame for Sunday's disastrous showing.

The night in which Germany's Social Democrats became a shadow of their former selves started off with a loud cheer. Projections being screened at the party headquarters in Willy Brandt House in Berlin were showing that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- their main opposition -- was sitting on a miserly 27.5 percent. Supporters in the atrium of the party headquarters cheered exuberantly -- but then when the numbers for the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, were added to the CDU's own numbers, they began to groan instead, horrified.

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Together the Union, as the two parties are known together, had 34 percent. And then their own numbers: Projections for the Social Democrats (SPD) had the party at 23 percent of the vote.

The black-yellow coalition -- the colors of the CDU are black and those of their desired coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are yellow -- had the majority. The rest was irrelevant. And the first guests began to leave.

A Historic Loss, A 'Bitter Day' For Social Democracy

The German federal elections of 2009 have delivered a historic loss to the SPD. They party is down by almost 11 percent its their 2005 election results -- the most precipitous loss incurred by any party this election. The SPD will lose almost one-third of its members in parliament. The SPD remains stronger than the Left Party and the Greens together, but just barely. And the party's claim to center-left leadership is now threatened with extinction. "We have been bombed right back into the Weimar Republic," said one leading party member said.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m. SPD chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier and head of the party, Franz Müntefering, came onto the stage at Willy Brandt House. There was loud applause -- it was defiant though. And of course, Steinmeier was smiling -- that's part of his job. But his smile seemed unreal in light of what he was about to have to tell the audience. Müntefering, on the other hand, who was standing next to him, looked like a statue -- his mouth a thin line, his hands folded, gazing into the distance. He knew that a lot of people here tonight would be viewing him as Sunday's actual election loser.

"The voters have decided," Steinmeier began. "And the results are a bitter day for German social democracy. You can't really beat around the bush." But, he added, "we did fight!" And again there were loud cheers.

Steinmeier Wants to Lead Tough Opposition

Steinmeier thanked his supporters, reminisced on the 11 straight years his party had been part of the government and announced the inevitable: The SPD will go into the opposition. And Steinmeier, the candidate who only delivered a result of 23 percent for his party, wants to be the opposition leader, as the head of the SPD's parliamentary group. The party's current whip in parliament, Peter Struck, is leaving the position. "As the leading candidate, I would love to have this responsibility, and that is why I am saying on this bitter evening that I will not flee from this responsibility."

So Steinmeier will stay. That's not terribly surprising. Many expected him to make a grab for power -- even if some guests were left scratching their heads about the fact that he could think it self-evident to make such an announcement after a disastrous showing in the polls. "We will be an opposition that will pay very close attention to how the new government turns out to be," the 53-year-old assured them.

Is Steinmeier the Right Leader?

The applause with which his fellow party members reacted might have been good for him, but it doesn't cover up the doubts about whether he is the right man for the job. The fact that the left wing of the SPD is not going to stand for "business as usual" was already clear by 6 p.m. It certainly wasn't a coincidence that Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who has ambitions for a higher position in his party, called for a "renewal and rejuvenation" of the SPD. Björn Böhning, spokesman for the party's left-wing faction, made similar remarks, describing the poor result as a "turning point" for the SPD.

Criticism of Steinmeier's claim to the position of party whip in parliament began pouring in by the afternoon. During a telephone conference of the party's state and district leaders, state-level party leaders in particular expressed reservations about overly hasty steps. Hannelore Kraft, for example, the party's boss in populous North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, said that the party needed to take time in making personnel decisions, and that rash decisions shouldn't be made.

Another leading SPD member, more a pragmatist than a leftist, put it differently at the party's headquarters in Berlin, saying the wild applause wasn't sufficient to appoint a person as head of the party's parliamentary group after this election result. Another questioned whether Steinmeier had the goods to pit himself directly against someone as powerfully eloquent as Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine in opposition.

The SPD Cannot Avoid a Fresh Start Now

Steinmeier's future is one thing, that of Müntefering is quite another. There were quite a few SPD members at party headquarters on Sunday night who predicted the party boss would soon resign. Even before the disaster, Müntefering seemed politically crippled, having lost his aura somewhat after the party's poor showing in June's European parliamentary elections.

As the first catastrophic figures began to arrive on Sunday, the resentment within the party was made clear to the party boss during internal meetings. Yet he apparently is not contemplating resignation even in the light of the latest debacle. "German social democracy will once more fight on," he said defiantly at the podium. "We will be in politics again very soon."

One thing is certain after this result: The SPD cannot avoid a new start. It is almost certain that the party will have to move further to the left, both in terms of policy and strategy. There is nothing left if they don't want to face the 2013 election with no chances of forming a government.

Müntefering May Pay for Losses -- and Arrogant Leadership Style

The coming days will be dominated by the discussion of what leadership the party will need for this new orientation. It seems at the very least highly unlikely that Müntefering will continue as party leader. After all it wouldn't be wrong to see the result as a reckoning for the arrogant political style that has dominated the party for the past 11 years and the most prominent remaining representative of that style is Müntefering. The party is likely to make that glaringly clear to him during the party conference in November at the very latest.

Müntefering may well say that he wants "us all to stick together" ahead of that conference. Yet, that could be difficult, as was made all too clear by comments from his old rival Kurt Beck. The governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, who was SPD party leader until September 2008, said now was the time to work together to look for a new party leader. "I am in favor of working together on a proposal," he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

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Graphic: German election results Zoom
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Graphic: German election results


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