Germany's Center-Left Struggles to Claw Back ; Lagging in Opinion Polls, Party Banks on Fairness as Theme to Beat Merkel

By Eddy, Melissa | International Herald Tribune, May 24, 2013 | Go to article overview

Germany's Center-Left Struggles to Claw Back ; Lagging in Opinion Polls, Party Banks on Fairness as Theme to Beat Merkel


Eddy, Melissa, International Herald Tribune


With elections just months away, Germany's main center-left party lags Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in polls and their lead candidate has stumbled from one gaffe to the next.

It is a sign of the challenges facing the Social Democratic Party in Germany that the guests of honor at the gala for its 150th anniversary on Thursday here were a struggling foreign Socialist leader, President Francois Hollande of France, and its main rival in this autumn's general election, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Social Democrats, Germany's oldest organized political party and a pioneer in creating Europe's welfare states, can look back on a storied past, but face an uncertain future. The center-left party lags behind Ms. Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union in surveys for September elections and its lead candidate has stumbled from one gaffe to the next since he was chosen to try and defeat the popular chancellor.

Perhaps most bittersweet for the Social Democrats is that although they were responsible in 2003 for pushing through the changes that have allowed Germany to weather the global economic downturn and Europe's debt crisis with relatively little pain, they have received no credit for the achievement.

Instead, Ms. Merkel rides high in popularity ratings and the Social Democrats are still struggling to recover from the split the move caused in their party, and to win back voters who abandoned them over the issue.

Speaking to 1,600 guests from 80 countries who gathered in the Gewandhaus concert hall, the French president praised the foresight of the economic changes, introduced by the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder when he was chancellor, and much criticized at the time by leftists in the Socialist Party that Mr. Hollande was then running in France.

"Progress is about making brave choices in difficult moments to maintain jobs, to anticipate changes in industry," Mr. Hollande said. "That is what Gerhard Schroder did here in Germany that has allowed your country to be ahead of others."

Mr. Hollande also praised French-German friendship as a source of progress for Europe, sending a message of unity after months of friction between his government and Berlin, amid growing concern in Germany that he is not doing enough to hasten similar economic changes for the French economy.

Ms. Merkel sat in the front row but did not give a speech. Neither did Peer Steinbruck, who is running against her as the lead candidate for the Social Democrats.

But the chancellor praised her rival in a commentary published on Thursday in the Leipziger Volkszeitung as a "militant and unbending voice for democracy" in Germany. (In another twist of Germany's coalition-laden politics, Mr. Steinbruck was finance minister in Ms. Merkel's first coalition government, weathering with her the 2008 financial crisis).

More than anyone in Germany, Ms. Merkel has reaped the benefits of the unpopular changes that took Germany from the "sick man of Europe" to the champion of the euro zone.

The changes splintered the Social Democrats, driving a wedge between leftists who felt that the party's ideals had been betrayed, and centrists who deemed the changes necessary to keep Germany competitive.

Founded in Leipzig in 1863 as a force for the rights of workers during the Industrial Revolution, at their peak the Social Democrats counted more than a million members. …

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