Party time is over for unhappy SPD

STEVE CRAWSHAW

Bonn

If Tony Blair wishes to sleep peacefully at night, then perhaps he should not look too closely at the crisis now engulfing Germany's Social Democratic Party, the SPD. The country's main opposition party is tearing itself apart in a frenzy of self-criticism, following its humiliating failure to unseat Helmut Kohl's coalition in elections last October.

At the beginning of last year the SPD regarded victory in last year's elections as a certainty. Now, the SPD looks like a party which could not organise a Bierfest in a brewery. Increasingly, the SPD's own leaders seem inclined to regard their party as a basket case.

Yesterday, a meeting of the party leadership insisted that all would now be well, and talked of a new "team spirit". But the fierce criticisms continue.

One obvious candidate for the chop could be the party's leader, Rudolf Scharping. Less than a year before the elections in October 1994, he was widely feted as Germany's next Chancellor.

The latest crisis was sparked by the party's chief troublemaker, the abrasive Gerhard Schroder, who publicly turned on Mr Scharping and on the party's policies - and lack of them. Mr Schroder, prime minister of Germany's north-western region, Lower Saxony, and party economic spokesman, told Die Woche: "It's no longer a matter of social democratic or conservative economic policies, but of modern or un-modern policies."

Mr Scharping retorted: "Anybody who sees things like that can no longer be responsible for Social Democratic economic policy." He duly sacked Mr Schroder.

But the sacking, earlier this month, only served to unleash yet more chaos within the SPD. There has been a wave of high-level resignations in recent days. Those who have given up their posts - including Karsten Voigt, foreign affairs spokesman - do not necessarily have any great love for Mr Schroder. But they are united in their belief that the party is in a mess.

Mr Scharping's inability to communicate means he has little credit in the political bank. A savage portrait in Der Spiegel magazine, describing a recent Scharping roadshow, was headlined "Wave, Rudolf!" - a reference to the fact that Mr Scharping's spokesman had to prompt the SPD leader on his every move.

Opinion polls suggest that twice as many voters believe that Mr Schroder could dislodge Mr Kohl as believe that Mr Scharping can get rid of the colossus who has ruled Germany for 13 years. But, above all, the party itself is the loser from the disputes. It is still uncertain whether Mr Schroder could put together the pieces any better than Mr Scharping has managed to do.

The latest opinion polls leave the SPD scrabbling around at about 32 per cent - 4 per cent less than last October.

Commentators on left and right agree that the SPD's problem is bigger than merely the problem of Mr Scharping. The left-of-centre Frankfurter Rundschau noted that the wave of resignations indicated the "deep melancholy" in the party.

Despite Mr Schroder's strictures, the SPD is more "modern" than the British Labour Party. Partnership with industry is taken for granted in Germany. Mr Schroder has an excellent relationship with senior industrialists (including Volkswagen, based in Lower Saxony), such as Mr Blair can only dream of.

None the less, the SPD finds itself limping along - failing to take advantage of the government's failures and always seeming one step behind.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung was scathing yesterday. "The party does not need a would-be Machiavelli, but a conceptual thinker, who could formulate the social democratic answer to the problems of our time, not foreseen by the party's founding fathers." Such a thinker, the paper noted, is nowhere to be seen.

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