German chancellor quits party leadership post

Saturday, February 7, 2004

BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder unexpectedly announced Friday that he will give up leadership of the governing Social Democrats, freeing him to concentrate on steering the country while handing over to a trusted aide the job of quelling dissent within the party. Schroeder, both chancellor and leader of the center-left party since April 1999, said he would transfer party leadership to Franz Muentefering, the Social Democrats' leader in parliament and a figure closer to the party's core voters. "I will concentrate on my work as chancellor and head of government, which involves not just pushing forward domestic reforms but also a series of international commitments that simply need time," Schroeder told reporters.

The changeover, which he said "is in the interest of the process of renewal in Germany," needs party approval, and a special meeting is scheduled next month.

In recent months, Schroeder spent much of his time trying to sell to the party faithful a package of reforms meant to revive the stagnant German economy -- including health care changes and cuts to the welfare state, measures that met stiff resistance among left-wingers and the Social Democrats' traditional labor union allies.

"This as an attempt to free himself" from a job he never wanted, said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "He's taking himself out of range of direct criticism from the party."

Schroeder became the Social Democratic leader in April 1999, after a bitter power struggle leading to the resignation of rival Oskar Lafontaine, the former party chief who teamed with Schroeder to help the Social Democrats oust longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1998 election.

German chancellors don't always lead their own party. Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, never held the Social Democratic leadership.

Experts said Friday's announcement was unlikely to have an immediate effect on the Social Democrats' poll ratings, which have slumped since Schroeder narrowly won re-election in September 2002 amid high unemployment and misgivings over the reforms.

The party suffered several setbacks in state elections last year and faces a series of difficult elections this year, starting with state contests in Hamburg on Feb. 29.

Still, the change of leadership was expected to give the party new motivation -- particularly since it will be accompanied by the departure of Social Democratic General-Secretary Olaf Scholz, who was only narrowly re-elected by a party conference last November that strongly endorsed Schroeder.

"It's the right decision given the state of the party," said Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa polling agency, who has advised the chancellor in the past. Persistent internal sniping at Schroeder "had raised questions about the Social Democrats' ability to govern," he said.

Germany's conservative opposition said the move showed Schroeder had failed to convince his own party that reforms are needed, which it said would make it difficult to persuade the public.

"The chances of pushing through the right decisions to revive our country's labor market will diminish still further with a chancellor who clearly can't get his party behind him anymore," said Roland Koch, a senior member of the Christian Democrats and governor of Hesse state. "Today is the beginning of the end of Chancellor Schroeder."

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