Germany's left-wing SPD party returns to the middle

On Sunday, the moderate foreign minister and vice chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, was chosen as the party's candidate for chancellor in next year's federal election.

This year Germany's left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) has suffered in the polls, ravaged by bitter internal fighting. A leadership change has been heralded as the best way for the party to emerge from a grim chapter in its 145-year history. Cue the shake-up.

In a surprise move Sunday, the SPD's embattled leader, Kurt Beck, resigned, and two party veterans returned to the limelight: Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeir, the party's candidate for chancellor in next year's federal election, and Franz Müntefering, who will replace Mr. Beck.

Mr. Steinmeir and Mr. Müntefering are charged with wresting government control from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) one year from now. Since 2005, the SPD has shared power with the CDU as the junior member in a largely ineffectual grand coalition.

"The SPD couldn't wait anymore," Nico Fried, a political commentator, wrote in the influential Sueddeütsche Zeitung on Sunday. "It's the last hope that the party can unify again."

The SPD, Germany's oldest political party, currently has the lowest approval ratings in its history – 20 percent in some polls. Its membership has fallen below that of the CDU for the first time as a significant portion of its blue-collar voting bloc has become disillusioned.

Anwar Chaav, who operates a herb and spice stand in a Bonn market and earns less than $1,300 a month, says he will no longer vote for the SPD. "I work and still can't buy the things I need," Mr. Chaav says. "It is not the party of the people."

In recent years, the SPD opted for moderate ground and was credited for bolstering corporate competition, cutting taxes, reining in labor unions, and driving unemployment down to a 14-year low, thereby restoring Germany as Europe's economic powerhouse.

But there have been costs in addition to the loss of voters. An identity crisis within the SPD worsened this year as some members, notably Beck, drove the party much more to the left, a move that has stalled business before the governing coalition for more than a year.

The SPD and CDU have been hard-pressed to agree on family benefits and minimum-wage reforms. Instead of meeting Ms. Merkel in the middle, the SPD under Beck pursued liberal policies, aligning itself with the Left Party, which has grown on the backs of voters who feel the SPD has rejected social welfare values.

"It was always going to be this question with the SPD, whether it would completely align itself with the left or make this serious effort to distinguish itself from that party," says Jörg Himmelreich, an analyst in the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Steinmeir and Müntefering are among the SPD's most moderate and popular voices. Their appointments signal the party's return to the middle.

Müntefering was an original broker of the grand coalition and enjoys a good working relationship with Merkel. But his goal of distancing the SPD from the Left Party could prove tricky. The Left has scored points by painting itself as the defender of Germany's social welfare state. It has also co-opted issues such as welfare and child benefits that have previously won the SPD elections. A poll by the Allensbach agency shows that nearly 50 percent of German voters believe that the Left Party is better prepared than the SPD to close the country's wealth gap.

Meanwhile, Steinmeir was an obvious choice as the new public face of the SPD, Since becoming foreign minister, his popularity numbers have mirrored Merkel's.

But he is also a risky option. Steinmeir was a close aide to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who remains a divisive figure for SPD voters because he initiated the party's move to the middle. As Mr. Schröder's chief of staff, Steinmeir pushed through the SPD's Agenda 2010 reforms, a set of economic measures that bolstered business and limited the influence of labor unions. Traditional SPD supporters see Agenda 2010 as having widened the gap between rich and poor in Germany. This political history could play a role when voters decide which party to support next September.

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