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Cablegate: Spd's New Leadership Faces Challenges On the Left

DE RUEHFT #2853/01 2621109
O 181109Z SEP 08





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: SPD's New Leadership Faces Challenges on the Left

REF: Frankfurt 2701; Berlin 1231

1. SUMMARY: Newly-chosen SPD national leaders FM Frank-Walter
Steinmeier and Franz Muentefering face the critical task of
reuniting a divided party and fending off the rise of the Left Party
in the run up to the 2009 federal election. In two western states,
Hesse and Saarland, the local SPDs present challenges to the
national party as both consider cooperation with the Left as a way
to gain power at the state level. The Hesse SPD and Greens are
moving forward with plans to form a minority government in November
supported by the Left. In Saarland, the SPD faces a strong
challenge from the Left and its candidate Oskar Lafontaine in the
August 2009 state election and the possibility that forming a
coalition with the Left represents its best chance to govern. As
the SPD's new right-leaning national leaders plot the way forward,
the actions of their left-leaning compatriots in Hesse and Saarland
will test Steinmeier and Muenterfering's leadership and credibility.

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Hesse and Saarland SPDs Register Break

2. The national Social Democratic Party (SPD) party executive
board's September 7 decision to have Frank-Walter Steinmeier become
the SPD's Chancellor candidate in 2009 and Franz Muentefering party
chairman marked an abrupt move to the right in the party's
leadership. While the party executive board approved the change
with forty-four votes for, one against and five abstentions, the
voting revealed existing fissures in the SPD. State Chairpersons
from Hesse and Saarland, Andrea Ypsilanti and Heiko Maas, both
abstained while Saarland Bundestag member Ottmar Schreiner was the
only board member to vote against the move. The left-leaning
parties in Hesse and Saarland support additional rollbacks of
economic reform that the new leadership is likely to resist and
voting for the leadership change would no doubt have damaged
credibility with the party base in both those states.

Hesse Stays the Course on Minority Government

3. Despite the changes in national leadership, the Hesse SPD plans
to move forward with its plan to unseat the Christian Democratic
Union (CDU) caretaker government of Minister President Roland Koch
by forming a Red-Green minority government supported by the Left
Party (see ref A). The vote will take place in the beginning of
November. One of Ypsilanti's advisors, Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel,
told Pol Spec that the state party will not change its course, even
though the new national leaders have previously spoken out against
this option. Steinmeier and Muentefering have both stressed that
they do not intend to interfere with Ypsilanti's plans, but also
emphasized they would not cooperate with the Left on the national

4. With cooperation between the SPD and the Left also looming in
Saarland, the national leadership stands to gain little by taking a
hard line in Hesse at a time when it needs to unite the party for
the national election. Juergen Walter, the unofficial leader of the
conservative wing of the Hesse SPD, agreed, telling Pol Spec that
the change in leadership all but guaranteed the success of the
minority government plan in Hesse as the national leadership can not
risk alienating a local chapter. Without any better options,
Steinmeier and Muntefering can only hope that the minority
government will succeed in Hesse and serve as proof that the dangers
of Left Party cooperation are overstated.

Saarland SPD Also Leaning Left

5. The election in Saarland scheduled for August 30, 2009 (one
month before the federal election) will be an important show-down
between the SPD and the Left Party, with the latter led by the
populist National Left Party Chairperson Oskar Lafontaine. The Left
Party in this western state is now polling at 24%, one point above
the SPD. Both sides are fighting for positions on the left of the
political spectrum. Lafontaine did not hesitate to argue that the
change in SPD's national leadership shows that the SPD has returned
to its old reform-oriented politics, while the Left is the only
party that represents the have-nots. Saarland SPD leader Maas
rejected the argument saying that the SPD has moved decidedly away
from its reform agenda. As in Hesse, the Saarland SPD leadership
continues to lean left, away from the politics of Steinmeier and
Muentefering and may face a tough choice after the election of
governing with the Left Party, if it comes out ahead of the Left or
being a junior partner in a coalition with the CDU, if the CDU has
no other viable coalition options. Maas has opposed the option of
being the junior partner in a coalition with the Left.

5. COMMENT: Going into the 2009 election, Steinmeier and
Muentefering face the daunting task of turning around a divided
party and reversing its precipitous drop in popularity. The
challenge of uniting the party is exemplified in both Hesse and
Saarland where the local parties lean far to the left. Most

FRANKFURT 00002853 002 OF 002

importantly, both state parties currently entertain setting a
precedent in a western state by working with the Left Party -
something at odds with the views of the new national SPD leadership.
However, the national leadership appears to have no choice but to
allow the state parties to go forward with such plans at this point
for the sake of party unity. The challenge for the national SPD
will remain to convince voters that developments in these states
will not apply at the national level and to present itself as the
credible party of social justice and a viable alternative to the

6. This cable was coordinated with Embassy Berlin.

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