Germany's Social Democrats Try to Shake a Leftist Legacy


FOR Germany's Social Democratic Party, the path to power will entail making a break with the past.

With Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition weakening, experts here say the Social Democratic Party (SPD) stands its best chance in 12 years of gaining power.

But there is still plenty of time to go until federal parliamentary elections in October. And if the Social Democrats are to succeed in their quest, they will not just have to out-duel a wily and seasoned campaigner in Mr. Kohl. They will also have to effectively contend with the legacy of the party's previous campaigns.

Many political observers say that over the last decade, left-leaning SPD leaders have often acted as their own worst enemies, advocating radical social and economic policies destined to alienate mainstream voters.

But this year's SPD campaign will be different, some observers say. The party has a new leader, Rudolf Scharping, and a new attitude.

``The mood in the party has completely changed,'' says Karl Kaiser, director of the German Society for Foreign Policy. ``The left still has the majority of the party, but it is slowly coming to its senses, realizing that the world has changed.''

Mr. Scharping will have the chance to exhibit the SPD's new face this week when he makes a five-day trip to the United States. The visit includes a meeting with President Clinton, giving the US administration a chance for a close-up look at the man who may be in charge in Germany after October.

US officials are not the only ones wanting to get a better feel for the bearded Scharping. The cautious middle of the German electorate is also trying to size up the Social Democratic leader, wondering if Scharping indeed represents a new style of SPD leadership.

Convincing enough centrist voters that the Social Democrats have what it takes to govern will be perhaps Scharping's biggest challenge over the next six months.

Founded in 1875, the SPD historically has been one of the leading political forces during Germany's two attempts at parliamentary democracy in the 20th century. But the party's number of seats in parliament have not always translated into power.

During the turbulent Weimar Republic period, Social Democrats held the most seats of any party in the fractious parliament until 1930. Nevertheless, the SPD was reluctant to take on the responsibility of governing during the Weimar era, often refusing to make the necessary policy compromises needed to attract middle-of-the-road voters, or form coalitions with small centrist parties.

The SPD's decision to serve as a virtual professional opposition party facilitated Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, contend some German historians, including leading historian Eberhard Kolb of Cologne University.

In the post-World War II era, SPD-led coalitions governed Germany from 1969-1982. During that time, the SPD's big contribution under Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt was the policy of Ostpolitik, Germany's opening to the communist bloc in the east.

A 1982 split in the SPD's coalition with the Free Democratic Party brought down Mr. Schmidt and forced moderates to relinquish control of SPD. Since then the party, dominated by its left wing, has struggled to find a formula to regain power, advocating a pacifist foreign policy to go along with domestic social-welfare programs.

Yet in the 1990 federal elections, which centered on the issue of unification, the SPD urged caution, citing cost and the difficulty of merging two different systems. This cautious approach resulted in a convincing win for Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats.

Since he took over as SPD leader last summer, Scharping has steered the party back toward the center, and, perhaps more importantly, has taken steps to heal internal party rifts and present a more unified SPD leadership to the public.

``You now have again, at last, after a long break, a party that is willing to take power and able to govern,'' says foreign-policy center director Kaiser, who served as an adviser to former Chancellors Brandt and Schmidt.

Domestically, Scharping unveiled a draft party program last month that contains little radical rhetoric. It aims to mix the SPD's commitment to the social welfare system with fiscal responsibility, something that should appeal to voters as Germany tries to pull out of its worst recession since the end of World War II.

In foreign policy, Scharping is also trying to give the SPD a new image as a dependable partner in Europe, committed to NATO and the European Union. ``We consider ourselves to be realists striving for a better world, not in an idealistic manner,'' Scharping said in a February speech to the Munich Security Policy Conference.

Despite the move toward the political center, Scharping and the Social Democrats have made a few policy gaffes that could have undesired repercussions in October. The most recent involved a proposed tax increase on the wealthy.

The plan drew widespread criticism from trade union leaders and Christian Democratic politicians, who said the tax hike would hit the middle class hard. Scharping later backpedaled on the plan, but the controversy hurt his credibility as a new-era SPD leader.

Chancellor Kohl and other Christian Democratic leaders regard Scharping as a dangerous opponent. Wolfgang Schauble, a Kohl lieutenant, for example, remarked to reporters how Scharping has ``increased the fighting spirit'' of the SPD.

It appears that the Christian Democrats' strategy to defeat Scharping is to try to tar the Social Democrats with their past. Kohl, for instance, repeatedly warns that a SPD-led government would make a mess of foreign and economic policy.

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