For much of the last year, Germany's Social Democratic Party has been stumbling from crisis to crisis with plummeting membership and abysmal popularity. On Sunday, party leader Kurt Beck finally took the last move available to him: He stepped down.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced Beck's decision from a SPD leadership retreat in the small town of Werder, located just outside of Berlin. Steinmeier said that he would propose former party chair Franz Müntefering as Beck's successor, but that Steinmeier himself would take over the reins until the party could gather to choose its new leader.
Beck's surprise decision comes just one day after news leaked out that Steinmeier had been chosen by the party as its candidate for chancellor in general elections scheduled for next September. Sources within the SPD leadership told SPIEGEL that Steinmeier and Beck had spent weeks discussing the "chancellor question," and that Steinmeier had pushed hard for a decision to be made sooner rather than later. SPIEGEL ONLINE published the news on Saturday evening.
On Sunday, though, Beck expressed dissatisfaction with the way the decision had been made public. In a brief written statement, Beck said that he had asked Steinmeier to become the SPD's chancellor candidate two weeks ago and that the two had agreed to announce the decision at the Werder SPD meeting on Sunday.
"Because of systematic misinformation, the media have presented a completely different version of my decision," Beck wrote, indicating that he felt that some in his own party were trying to paint him in a poor light. "Against this background, I don't think it is possible anymore to hold the office of party leader with the necessary authority."
According to senior party functionary Angelica Schwall-Düren, Beck said he was resigning because of an internal SPD campaign against his leadership. The buffeted party leader made only a brief appearance at the Sunday meeting before leaving again. "We were all surprised and shocked at the same time," Steinmeier said, before saying that it was a difficult day for the SPD.
Almost just as surprising is the news that Müntefering is to take up where Beck left off. The 69-year-old Müntefering led the SPD from 2004 to 2005 before resigning after losing an internal party battle. He was instrumental in helping former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder push through his far-reaching reform package known as Agenda 2010 and was also a member of Schröder's cabinet for a time. When Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, Müntefering entered her cabinet as Labor Minister and was her Vice Chancellor. He resigned from most of his political duties in November 2007 to care for his wife Ankepetra, who had cancer. She died in July.
The SPD leadership plans to meet on Monday to set a date for an extraordinary party convention to vote on a new leader. Should Müntefering be chosen, he will become the fifth SPD party head in the last five years.
The news that Steinmeier had been chosen by the party to take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year's general elections surprised no one. In recent months, Beck's popularity had hit rock bottom and the SPD's approval ratings had tumbled ever lower. A poll on Sept. 3 found that just 21 percent of Germans would vote for the SPD in general elections.
Even worse, the Social Democrats are just 7 percentage points clear of the Left Party. Many in Germany are deeply suspicious of the party as it was partially formed out of the political remnants of the East German communists. Still, the Left Party has growing support, much of it coming from former members of the SPD who jumped ship due to the centrist reforms passed during the Schröder era.
The SPD under Kurt Beck has found it difficult to define its relationship to the Left Party. With the Left Party growing in popularity, the SPD, should it want to avoid being relegated to the opposition, might have to consider forming governing coalitions with the far left. One such SPD-Left Party coalition currently heads up the city-state of Berlin, but the idea has proven much more controversial in states in former West Germany. In Hesse at the moment, the SPD is currently trying to patch together a minority government coalition with the Greens -- using votes from the Left Party.
Such an SPD-Left Party partnership, though, remains unlikely on the national stage. Beck had been heavily criticized for not having distanced himself clearly enough from the Left Party.
A team of Steinmeier as chancellor candidate and Müntefering as party head might be just what the SPD needs to lead it out of the doldrums. Müntefering is widely respected in Germany and will give the party back some of its lost confidence. Steinmeier, for his part, is well liked by Germans and so far has little of the political baggage that Beck had accumulated.
Still, the SPD party base is unlikely to be terribly happy about how Steinmeier's candidacy was handled. Prior to the beginning of Sunday's meeting outside Berlin, a number of participants complained that they had learned of the decision from the media. Both Steinmeier and Beck had long said that the decision would not be made under pressure and that they wanted to wait until the Hesse government had been formed and elections in Bavaria, scheduled for later this month, had been held.
cgh -- with wire reports