The World from Berlin Beck Struggles to Paper Over SPD Divisions

German Social Democrat leader Kurt Beck returned to the political fray on Monday after two weeks of illness. He insisted at a press conference he remained firmly in charge of his party despite divisions over his U-turn on cooperating with the Left Party, but media commentators are skeptical.

Beck faced the press on Monday.

Beck faced the press on Monday.

The leader of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), Kurt Beck, has failed to get good press reviews for his comeback performance at a news conference on Monday after a two-week absence while he was recovering from flu.

That's not exactly surprising given that media commentators have been giving him a hard time ever since his 180-degree turn three weeks ago, when he suddenly dropped his opposition to SPD cooperation with the Left Party.

The SPD leader, who insisted he hadn't broken a promise that his party would not cooperate with a group made up of former communists and disgruntled former Social Democrats, told reporters he remained firmly in the driving seat at the SPD. But newspaper editorials say he is struggling to overcome growing divisions within the SPD between right-wing pragmatists preoccupied with governing in the grand coalition federal government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, and a left wing dreaming about alliances with the Left Party.

And that is also hurting him in the polls, too. A survey taken for SPIEGEL by TNS Forschung last week found that 60 percent of Germans believe that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also of the SPD, would stand a better chance as a chancellor candidate in the 2009 elections of leading the party to victory over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Only 25 percent thought Beck would be better.

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Beck conveyed his message with the calm of a Buddha: the party may be in turmoil but its boss is keeping cool."

"Measured in terms of the risks involved in giving a solo performance in front of the capital city's journalists in such a precarious situation, his calming strategy worked. He was clever enough to refrain from behaving like a wounded animal and launching into wild attacks, for example against his deputies (Finance Minister) Peer Steinbrück and (Foreign Minister) Frank-Walter Steinmeier who gave their party leader half-hearted backing at best during his flu-induced absence."

"But this defensive tactic will only help Beck to stop his party sinking even deeper into the mess. It will help limit the political damage done by the SPD chairman's lurch to the left. But this strategy won't help to overcome the rift within the Social Democrats about how to deal with the Left Party."

"The SPD leader did all he could to shrug off the accusation that he broke his word regarding cooperation with the Left Party. But something unappetizing remains stuck to him. One can't excuse a broken promise by saying events took a different turn than expected."

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The SPD leader's appearance on Monday was so boring and halting that one can only hope he won't get nominated as candidate for the chancellorship."

"Beck was evidently intent on stressing his leadership. But where does he plan to lead the party? That remained vague. It was important to him to label the Left Party as a 'rival party' which apparently 'doesn't have a (political) program.'"

"This rhetoric of segregation was oppressive because it made clear that the SPD with Beck as its leader won't manage to get beyond tactical trench warfare. He doesn't seem to realize that that his voters have other worries. A recession is looming, the middle class is shrinking, real incomes are falling even during the economic recovery -- but the SPD seems strangely uninvolved."

"The Left Party isn't a rival stealing SPD votes outside the center ground. Instead, the social problems are now so pressing that there's room for the imagination and policies of several left-wing parties."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Beck now wants a reversal of strategy, which was decided without any prior debate, to wipe away everything that was regarded as irrevocable before the regional elections earlier this year. If Kurt Beck still doesn't regard this as a broken promise, serious doubts about his judgment are warranted. He may perform faith healing on himself. But the SPD won't return to health in this way."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"A leader who has authority doesn't get asked if he has lost that authority. A party leader who has to explain publicly how strong he is, is in fact weak."

"The SPD is going to be tested to breaking point as the next general election approaches. The left wing of the SPD -- with the help of the Left Party if necessary -- wants to enter into opposition against the government where the SPD's right-wing happens to be well represented, unfortunately. Beck is trying to keep everything together. But he lacks the necessary background, the authority and the debating skills. After the sudden resignations of (former SPD vice chancellor Franz) Müntefering and (party boss Matthias) Platzeck, Beck was the only available party leader. That qualification was sufficient to get him the job at the time, but it's gradually fading away."

David Crossland, 1.30 p.m. CET

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