Will former minister’s stab in the back hurt Germany’s SPD?
The last time Germany went to the polls, Wolfgang Clement was deputy head of the Social Democrats (SPD), and one of the most powerful figures in government: the “super minister” in charge of both economic and labour market policy, who had previously governed the SPD heartland of North-Rhine Westphalia, home to 18 million people.
Four years on, Clement is urging the public to vote for one of the centre-left SPD’s most bitter rivals, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).
In a newspaper advertisment on Friday, Clement said he was backing FDP leader Guido Westerwelle in Sunday’s federal election.
An admirer of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Westerwelle has branded the SPD socialists, and wants to end their 11 years in office to form a centre-right coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.
Though Clement had long had a fractious relationship with the left of the SPD, the endorsement was unprecedented, said Josef Schmid, a political scientist at the University of Tuebingen.
“The man is no fool but to act like this is just idiotic,” he said of Clement, a former journalist who spent nearly 40 years in the party. “I can remember nothing like it.”
The 69-year-old Clement left the SPD last November after a row blew up over his criticism of the party in the state of Hesse.
Yet despite overtures from the FDP, he said he would remain a “Social Democrat without party membership.”
In the advert in Bonn’s General-Anzeiger, Clement said a vote for the FDP was a vote for economic prosperity and against the “irresponsible populism” of die Linke or Left Party, a far-left grouping led by ex-SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine that has eaten into the Social Democrats’ traditional base.
Uwe Andersen, a political scientist at the University of Bochum, said the move by Clement, who presided over the biggest postwar cuts to German jobless benefits, was symptomatic of lingering divisions between the left and centrist wings of the SPD.
“This is a real coup for the FDP though, and Westerwelle will try to make the most of it. It could spirit centrist voters away from the SPD. Then again, it could encourage some people who might have stayed at home to go out and vote for the SPD,” he said.
Andersen said Clement’s decision was particularly shocking in a country where political allegiances have traditionally been set in stone.
“The ties here are more of a marriage for life than in the United States. But young people are getting fed up with it,” he said. “That’s why party membership of the main parties has been falling so dramatically.”
IMAGE:Outgoing German Economic Minister Wolfgang Clement of the Social Democrats (SPD) gestures during the inauguration of his successor Michael Glos of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) in Berlin November 23, 2005. Clement handed over his duties to Glos following the inauguration of Angela Merkel as Germany’s first female chancellor on November 22. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay