POLITICS : Power Struggle a Pitfall for German Opposition


Can things possibly get worse for Germany's Social Democrats? At times this summer and fall, the country's oldest political party has been so troubled, so rudderless, that the governing Christian Democrats have enjoyed a virtual free ride in the Parliament and chancellery, with no unified opposition at all.

Social Democratic Party leader Rudolf Scharping, 47, is proving unable to bring his noisy, intraparty opponents into line. The most egregious example has been that of Gerhard Schroeder, the ambitious, outspoken prime minister of Lower Saxony and former economics spokesman for the party.

Schroeder lost to Scharping in the party's 1993 leadership vote. But he has never ceased suggesting that he is the rightful man to run for chancellor when Germany next goes to the polls in 1998.

In an unforgivable act of insubordination, Schroeder even implied, in a newspaper interview, that leader Scharping's economic ideas were old-fashioned. "Anybody who sees it this way can no longer speak for the economic policy of our party," said Scharping, firing Schroeder in late August.

But if Scharping wanted to send a signal of authority, booting out his archrival was not the way to do it. Schroeder's departure, and the underlying weaknesses that it highlighted, instead triggered an exodus of top talent from the Social Democrats.

Soon after Schroeder left, the party's spokesman in the federal Parliament also stepped down, complaining that his attempts to lure the party toward free-market policies were being blocked by "traditionalists."

The party's parliamentary faction manager said she would depart in November, as did a member of the national executive board. The parliamentary foreign affairs speaker quit, as did the party's cerebral national manager, Guenter Verheugen, in the most damaging resignation of all.

The high-level departures have badly tarnished the party's image among voters, as have its recent, exasperating flip-flops on substantive issues--on whether members of Parliament should have their pay increased, for instance, and on immigration policy.

One poll suggested that support for the wallowing Social Democrats has sunk to 30%, the lowest level since Germany's first postwar elections, in 1949. In general elections a year ago, the Social Democrats were able to win 36% of the vote.

The same poll indicated that the Christian Democrats, meanwhile, had risen in popularity to about 46%, from about 42% of the vote they won last year.

Not surprisingly, calls have been mounting for the resignation of Scharping--"the wrong chairman at the wrong time," as Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung called him.

As a practical matter, this is unlikely to happen before Oct. 22, when the city-state of Berlin will hold elections. But if the Social Democrats do badly in Berlin--as expected-- Scharping will have a hard time holding onto his leadership when the Social Democrats hold a scheduled party congress in November.

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