April 10, 2006

German SPD party leader steps down

By James Mackenzie

BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Germany's Social Democrats
(SPD), partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition,
said on Monday he was stepping down on the advice of doctors
only months after taking office.

Matthias Platzeck, 52, was admitted to hospital last month
after suffering from a sudden hearing problem.

"In the past days I had to come to the toughest decision in
my life, which was to follow my doctors' urgent advice to step
down from my position as the leader of the Social Democrat
Party in Germany," Platzeck said in a news conference.

He said Kurt Beck, the popular state premier of
Rhineland-Palatinate, would be proposed as his replacement and
both men pledged to ensure the smooth continuation of the SPD's
"grand coalition" with Merkel's conservatives.

"I am absolutely for continuity in our work in the grand
coalition," Beck said, adding that Merkel had been informed of
the decision in advance.

Beck, 57, currently deputy party leader, is generally
considered a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. He governed with
the market-friendly Free Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate for
more than a decade before winning an absolute majority in

The sudden change, which will give the SPD its fourth
leader in little more than two years, underlines the problems
faced by the party, which has struggled to reconcile its
working class roots with growing pressure for economic reforms.

But the likely appointment of Beck means the direct impact
on the federal government should be limited.

"I don't think this will bring any trouble for the grand
coalition. Beck is also someone who supports the coalition,"
said Uwe Andersen, a political scientist at Bochum University.


Platzeck had been widely expected to be the Social Democrat
candidate for chancellor in federal elections due in 2009 but
it is unclear whether Beck, who turned down the chance to lead
the party last year, will lead it into the next election.

"Given his age, he will definitely not be a permanent
solution but I don't think there is any other choice for the
SPD at the moment," Andersen said.

Platzeck, premier of the eastern state of Brandenburg, only
took over as party leader in November after an internal party
revolt toppled previous chairman Franz Muentefering.

Like Merkel, he grew up in the formerly communist East
Germany and was initially seen as a fresh start for a party
searching for its way after seven stormy years in government
under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

But in recent weeks he faced increasing pressure as the SPD
slipped in poll ratings and Merkel won applause for her assured
performance in her first months in office.

Party unity has been severely tested in recent years since
Schroeder launched his comparatively radical "Agenda 2010"
program of economic reforms, which included big cuts in
unemployment benefit and looser job protection rules.

Internal discontent cost Schroeder the party leadership in
early 2004. He was replaced by Muentefering, currently Merkel's
deputy chancellor, who handed over to Platzeck last year after
party delegates defied his wishes over a senior appointment.

(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker, Gernot Heller,
Markus Krah and Sabine Siebold)