Helmut Schmidt bows out of W. German party politics

Family, health, and the attraction of being an elder statesman won out over the party's call to duty.

Helmut Schmidt, West Germany's chancellor and one of the West's senior leaders for 81/2 years until his ouster by a shift of coalition Oct. 1, pulled his hat out of the ring for good Oct. 26. He told the Social Democratic Party (SPD) caucus in the Bundestag that he will not be the party's chancellor candidate in the general election next March.

The consequence, it is widely expected here, will be a shift to the left by the SPD and some loss of votes in the spring election.

Mr. Schmidt cited reasons of health for his withdrawal. Since a major operation a year ago he has worked as intensively as ever, but his wife in particular is known to want him to lead a less strenuous life now.

In the end these considerations weighed more heavily than the unanimous wish of the SPD leadership that Schmidt continue at the head of his party. This was based less on uncontested approval of Schmidt's centrist policies - over the past two years the SPD left wing has repeatedly sniped at Schmidt over nuclear missile and social welfare issues - than on Schmidt's proven ability to pull in the votes.

Remarkably for a man who has served more than two full terms and had his share of setbacks, he is still the most popular politician in the country, as poll after poll shows.

Schmidt's leavetaking of high SPD politics must rank with his leavetaking of the chancellery as among the most shrewdly executed tactics in his career. His seizure of the attack and demand for immediate elections in September when his Liberal partners were about to desert him and topple his government restored the initiative to the SPD and reunified a hitherto squabbling and demoralized party whose stock was sinking lower with every election.

His bowing out now means that he goes as an elder statesman with a very creditable record, not as a defeated chancellor candidate after a messy and bitter campaign. He can now afford to choose his fights, and at the same time stay above the fray. With this prestige he clearly intends to be more in the future than just another member of Parliament from Hamburg.

The urgent questions the SPD must now resolve involve the choice of a new candidate and the identity of the party in what almost everyone thinks will be a long period of opposition. Both issues will be taken up in senior party councils within a few days.

The new chancellor candidate must be someone who can unite the left and centrist wings of the party. This is taken to mean one of only two possibilities: Johannes Rau, premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia; or Hans-Jochen Vogel, Schmidt's one-time heir apparent who resigned his post as justice minister two years ago to go to West Berlin and rescue the SPD there after a scandal had torn it apart.

Neither of these men would have the seniority to impose his own platform on the SPD in the way that Schmidt would, however, and this relative weakness can only enhance the influence of the more purely party (as distinct from the ex-government) leadership of the SPD.

That influence will be exercised by party chairman (and ex-chancellor) Brandt. And if Mr. Brandt's past statements are any indication, that influence will be exercised in a leftward direction.

Ever since the antinuclear missile movement gathered strength last year and the antimissile, environmentalist, and generally counterculture Greens began winning seats in state parliaments two years ago, Brandt has urged the SPD to move left to adopt these concerns and incorporate the protesters back into the political mainstream.

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