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Cablegate: Germany's Social Democrats Reject Party's Top-Down

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DE RUEHRL #1460/01 3211406
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 171406Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY BERLIN
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5802

UNCLAS BERLIN 001460

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TAGS: PGOV PREL AF GM
SUBJECT: GERMANY'S SOCIAL DEMOCRATS REJECT PARTY'S TOP-DOWN
DECISIONMAKING; EMBRACE CORE VALUES AND NEW LEADERS

1. (SBU) Summary: Germany's struggling Social Democratic
Party (SPD) voted in a new leadership and recommitted itself
to serving as the country's center-left people's party at its
November 13-15 party convention. After having suffered its
worst defeat at the polls since World War II, the newly
elected leadership called for party renewal and a return to
social justice values and promised to put more emphasis on
ongoing internal debate. While blame was not cast directly,
many of the dozens of speakers accused the party leadership
of losing touch with its base and with its core values. The
party's main rallying points were its resounding election of
Sigmar Gabriel as party chair and in favor of a property tax.
The party stopped short of revisiting major welfare reforms
and of setting a date by which German troops should exit
Afghanistan. End summary.

Out With "Basta" Politics
-------------------------

2. (SBU) Former SPD chair Franz Muentefering and party
secretary general Hubertus Heil November 13 were respectfully
ushered out from leadership positions of a party at its
deepest political ebb. The party had held great hopes for
Muentefering, the second party chair elected within one year,
but neither he nor former SPD Chancellor candidate and
current caucus chief Frank-Walter Steinmeier could prevent
its downward spiral ending with the disastrous results at the
September 27 polls. In his farewell speech, Muentefering
acknowledged the depth of the party's defeat but focused on
criticizing the effects of capitalism and the Christian
Democratic Union-Christian Social Union and Free Democratic
Party coalition (CDU/CSU-FDP) rather than analyzing the
party's mistakes.

3. (SBU) The ensuing dozens of speakers, however, vented
frustration with the party leadership for neglecting its base
-- its so-called "basta" (dictatorial) politics -- and the
party's departure from its core social justice values.
Thuringia's SPD leader Christoph Matschie told Poloff at the
convention that former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has
been most closely associated with "basta" politics, as had
Muentefering. Schroeder, he said, did not bring the party
base along when developing the major welfare reforms called
Agenda 2010. Franciska Drohsel, chair of the SPD youth
organization, delivered perhaps the most biting criticism,
mentioning a loss of trust in the party and appealing for the
SPD to again be the party of social justice. Her group later
successfully pushed through an amendment to the party program
calling for a property or "wealth" tax. Although a negative
tone toward military engagement in Afghanistan was expressed
during the convention, the delegates rejected an attempt to
amend the platform to set a date for the withdrawal of the
Bundeswehr, calling instead for the groundwork to be laid
during this legislative period that would allow for the
troops' withdrawal.

An Impressive Sigmar Gabriel
----------------------------

4. (SBU) The convention's critical mood lifted when, after
66 speakers, former SPD Environment Minister Gabriel took the
stage and began his personal appeal for party renewal, unity
and future action. He quickly carried the crowd. He called
on the party to cease chasing after the elusive "center," but
rather to focus on defining itself. Rather than seeking to
change the middle, Gabriel said, "we changed ourselves." He
also acknowledged that "we did things that part of the party
found unacceptable." He referred specifically to changing
the retirement age to 67, which many of the previous speakers
had criticized. He said that the party should address its
approach "from the bottom to the top" and at the latest
within 12 months should present some answers. To this end,
he called for conferences with community representatives and
meetings with all sectors of society. He also called for
yearly party conventions to debate and vote on issues.
Gabriel received a six-minute standing ovation and was then
voted in as Chairman with 94 percent of the some 500
delegates.


5. (SBU) The delegates also voted in a new General
Secretary, Andrea Nahles, who represents the SPD's left wing.
Nahles spoke directly after Gabriel, but could not match his
appeal. She was voted in with only 69 percent of the vote.
Although talented and well-connected within the party, Nahles
has been a controversial figure and has tended to polarize.
Also, some in the left wing may have felt that she has moved
too far to the center. Elected as party vice chairs were
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit with 89.6 percent of the vote,
SPD leader in North Rhine-Westphalia Hannelore Kraft with
90.2 percent, former SPD Labor Minister Olaf Scholz with 85.7
percent and SPD Health Minister in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Manuela Schwesig with 87.8 percent.


Comment
-------

6. (SBU) The SPD leadership prepared well for the
convention, with the aim of preventing any major
blood-letting. Both Gabriel and Nahles traveled extensively
before the convention and spoke with various regional party
assemblies allowing dissatisfaction and criticism to be
widely aired. At the convention itself, more than a day was
reserved for statements and intense discussion by the
delegates about the state of the party. In addition, several
speakers at the convention, including Muentefering, pointed
out that the party had gained some 5,000 new members since
the elections. While the party did not signal any major
breaks with past SPD policy at the convention nor did Gabriel
in his speech, it was clear that the SPD leadership will be
seeking new ways to reconnect with its base and win back lost
voters. It will also develop positions that reflect more of
its center-left tradition for its role as opposition leader.


MURPHY

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