After Defeat in Coalition Talks Germany's Vice Chancellor Resigns

Germany's vice chancellor and labor minister, Franz Müntefering, is resigning. The news came just hours after the governing grand coalition, in a defeat for Müntefering, reached agreement on extending welfare payments.

By in Berlin

Germany's vice chancellor and labor minister, Franz Müntefering, is resigning.

Germany's vice chancellor and labor minister, Franz Müntefering, is resigning.

The second most powerful figure in German politics announced Tuesday he would step down as vice chancellor and labor minister, sending jolts through a coalition government that sees Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats sharing power with the now even further to the left Social Democrats (SPD).

Franz Müntefering, 67, a longtime party leader and SPD fixture since the 1960s, said he was leaving office because of "pure familial and personal reasons."

Müntefering's wife Ankepetra has been suffering from cancer for a number of years, and the vice chancellor missed a recent coalition summit because his wife was undergoing an operation. Müntefering said he made the decision because of the "new, dramatic situation" with his wife's health. "I know many will see this as politically motivated," he said at a press conference. "There have been plenty of disputes in my political past, but I have always endured them and could also endure them this time. But I ask for people to accept that this really is for private reasons."

Still, his decision to quit came as a surprise in Berlin. Only three weeks ago, when he was still locked in a power struggle with SPD leader Kurt Beck over calls in the party to undo some of the economic reforms put in place by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, he credibly denied reports he was on the verge of stepping down.

Indeed, at a recent party conference, where his power struggle with Beck ended in defeat, he proudly told fellow SPD members: "I haven't dried up yet. There's still something in me." At the conference, an overwhelming majority threw their weight behind Beck, who had emerged as the party's clear leader. Still, while Müntefering might have lost the battle, he still managed to win the hearts of delegates and left the conference as a moral leader who was in no way isolated within his party.

On Tuesday, though, Müntefering came forward with his decision to leave office before the end of November.

Müntefering's friends in the SPD were clearly shocked by the news. The vice chancellor's abrupt decision-making style has often left his party bewildered. That was the case when, together with Schröder, he called for snap federal elections after the SPD lost at the ballot box in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2005. And it was also the case when Müntefering announced his resignation as SPD chairman in October 2005 after the party executive refused to appoint his confidant, Kajo Wasserhövel, as general secretary.

In contrast to previous episodes, this time there is overwhelming support within the party for Müntefering. Indeed, reactions have been similar to those towards Matthias Platzeck, who resigned as party chairman due to illness in April 2006.

Even if Müntefering's resignation isn't primarily motivated by politics, that won't prevent it from being seen as a symbol of a major political shift within not only the SPD, but also the grand coalition government. After all, speculation about Müntefering stepping down in recent weeks didn't just come out of nowhere. It was based on the impression that the man who had come to be known as "Mr. Grand Coalition," was growing increasingly frustrated. The good relations he had with Chancellor Angela Merkel had palpably cooled after she let his plan to introduce a minimum wage for postal workers run aground.

The power struggle with Beck over extending unemployment benefits also wore on Müntefering, who had led the opposition to any changes -- likewise the fact that Gerhard Schröder, his former co-combatant, recently made fun of his defense of Agenda 2010 and dismissively called him "Moses."

News of Müntefering's resignation came just hours after Merkel's cabinet agreed to extend unemployment benefits following marathon talks which extended into the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Merkel's CDU agreed to a proposal from SPD leader Beck to extend the period during which older people receive unemployment benefits. Under the new plan, over-50s will now receive full unemployment benefits for up to 24 months, instead of up to 18 months as was previously the case.

The decision reverses one element of the unpopular Agenda 2010 labor reforms and welfare cuts introduced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003-2004 and marks a swing to the left for the SPD, which is struggling to regain popularity. The move is a reaction to the current healthy state of the German economy, but has been criticized by economists who warn of the dangers of squandering government reserves on welfare payments.

During the summit, the cabinet also buried a previous deal that would have seen the creation of a minimum wage for postal workers -- a move critics say would have killed potential competitors to Deutsche Post, which is being forced to give up its monopoly position at the end of the year.

On Tuesday afternoon, Beck confirmed media reports about potential replacements for Müntefering. Parliamentary floor manager Olaf Scholz is to become labor minister and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will assume the title of vice chancellor. Steinmeier is already a powerful force for the SPD within the cabinet, and as a labor law attorney, Scholz is well-suited to deal with the challenges of his new job.


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