German social democracy's right turn sparks resistance
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Mon Aug 2 12:22:45 MDT 1999
August 2, 1999
German Laborers Challenge Social Democrats' Right Turn
By ROGER COHEN
BERLIN -- "Miners or male models?" asked the headline over photographs of
an elegant, smiling Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and a weary, coal-smeared
worker. "The party must decide."
The summary of the battle for the soul of Germany's Social Democratic Party
in the newspaper Die Welt was scarcely subtle, but it caught the mood of
the increasingly harsh struggle that has erupted between Schröder, in his
tailored Brioni suits, and workers who feel their party has abandoned them.
The outcome, it seems, will determine not only the character of the Social
Democratic party, with its roots in the struggle of factory workers for
social justice, but also the future course of Schröder's coalition
government with the environmentalist Greens.
Schröder, after some hesitation, has decided to take the Social Democrats
sharply toward the right, but over the past few days it has become clear
that he has not brought all the party with him. Rather, resistance is
Leading the dissent is Reinhard Klimmt, the state oremier of the small Saar
region bordering France, who last week described Schröder's latest ideas --
including abandoning the proposal for a tax on large fortunes -- as nothing
less than a betrayal of Social Democracy.
"What is missing?" Klimmt asked in an open letter that denounced the
policies of both Schröder and Tony Blair, the British prime minister. "That
tangible concern for creating and maintaining fairness in society -- the
soul of Social Democracy."
Six weeks ago, Schröder and Blair published a joint paper in which they
attempted to map out the essence of the Third Way -- a Clintonian updating
of Social Democratic values that attempts to place political movements
formerly regarded as of the left firmly in the center of the political
spectrum of modern societies.
In their paper, Schröder and Blair said: "The promotion of social justice
was sometimes confused with the imposition of equality of outcome. The
result was a neglect of the importance of rewarding effort and
responsibility." They added, "The weaknesses of markets have been
overstated and their strengths underestimated."
The two leaders, clearly attacking the past values of the left, went on to
suggest that high state spending was responsible for unemployment -- a
highly contentious assertion in Germany. "Achieving social justice," they
wrote, "became identified with ever higher levels of public spending
regardless of what they achieved or the impact on taxes required to fund it
on competitiveness and employment."
While such ideas are scarcely regarded as heresy by the left in Britain,
where the ground for Blair was prepared by the long rule of Margaret
Thatcher, they have had a far more explosive impact in Germany.
When Schröder followed up on the ideas last month by announcing austerity
measures cutting about $16 billion in state spending and freezing pensions,
the rift in his party burst into the open.
Klimmt, who took over in Saar from the former finance minister, Oskar
Lafontaine, and has now taken on Lafontaine's mantle as the leader of the
left within the Social Democratic Party, faces a state election on Sept. 5.
If he wins, his movement will clearly gain strength.
Already, several union leaders have expressed support for Klimmt's
position, saying that Schröder's insistence on "modernization" as the
solution for Germany's unemployment rate of over 10 percent cannot come at
the expense of social justice. The chancellor's abandonment of a promised
wealth tax has become the symbol of what is called his betrayal of the
In the eastern part of the country, where the successor party to the former
Communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism, is challenging the Social
Democrats from the left with increasing success, Schröder's new course has
also aroused mistrust and alarm.
Reinhard Hoppner, the Social Democratic premier of Saxony-Anhalt, expressed
support for Klimmt, noting: "East Germans see it as the government's
obligation to think in terms of social measures. No discussion of
modernization should allow this fact to be forgotten."
But strongly supported by business leaders, and determined to demonstrate
that only greater flexibility and a smaller state can bring down
unemployment, Schröder shows no sign of changing course. In an interview
published Sunday in the weekly Der Spiegel, he said the benefits of his
action would be clear by 2002, when the next federal elections are to be
"Some on the left of the party are going to have to understand that this
form of attack is unhelpful," Schröder said. "It's dangerous to constantly
question in public the direction of our program because voters will be
But what is already clear is that the current debate is not merely about
short-term political calculations. For many in Germany, it is about the
essence of a party whose values helped lay the basis for the
"social-market" model that served the country so well for many years.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
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