W. German Social Democrats find new leader in centrist Vogel. Longtime chief Brandt bids farewell; party now focuses on building unity

With the retirement of their sweetheart, Willy Brandt, after 23 years as party chairman, the West German Social Democrats now have a marriage of convenience with Hans-Jochen Vogel. Dr. Vogel does not hope for the same kind of love that conference delegates showered on Mr. Brandt in their eight-minute standing ovation Sunday and in appointing him honorary chairman for life. But Vogel does hope for enough respect to be able to exercise real leadership.

As new party chairman, continuing parliamentary leader, and possibly even the party's next candidate for chancellor in 1991, Vogel clearly intends to take charge of this marriage and not just be a stand-in until younger (leftist) suitors come along. He also intends to bring the party back more toward the center after it alienated middle-of-the-road German voters in the last two general elections by its flirtation with the more radical Greens.

In its head if not its heart, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) knows this is necessary. The 404 (out of 423) votes cast for Vogel as chairman show this - as do the more cautious 353 votes cast for the darling of the left, Saarland Premier Oskar Lafontaine, as one of two party vice-chairmen.

Moderates feared that Mr. Lafontaine's endorsement of peace movement criticism of Western defense policy and his call for West Germany to quit the NATO military alliance would scare voters away.

This Vogel definitely will not do. At the special party convention in Bonn that elected him, he pledged to make every effort to hold the party's feuding left and centrist factions together. But he himself is no adherent of left utopianism, and he is bent on making the SPD electable again. He expressly stands by the resolutions of last year's regular party convention, including the call to shut down all nuclear power plants in West Germany within 10 years. But he will otherwise try to recapture the initiative from the conservatives in regard to future-oriented, high-tech industry and to escape from the SPD's image as a diehard defender of obsolescent smokestack industries and their workers.

On peace and defense issues, Vogel also aims to keep the SPD from veering off to the left. He made sure that he, and not Lafontaine, addressed the peace rally of 100,000 in Bonn the day before the SPD special convention. And he had some eggs thrown at him for his general call for sensible steps toward peace rather than for a specific unilateral Western move toward disarmament.

As Vogel is the first to acknowledge, he has no easy task ahead of him. The SPD's inner leadership is more or less evenly split: Lafontaine and Hans-Ulrich Klose, party treasurer, represent the left wing; Johannes Rau, the SPD vice-chairman, North Rhine-Westphalia premier, and unsuccessful chancellor candidate, represents the pragmatic center; and Anke Fuchs, the new business manager, straddles the centrist and left wings.

But the pressure from below for a leftist tilt has increased as activists from the teaching and other intellectual professions have largely supplanted the old pragmatic trade union types that used to be the bedrock of the party.

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