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 mounting.
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 party base.
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 held.
"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 alarmed."
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.