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Crisis in the Social Democratic Party (October 5, 1981)

With regard to speculation about a possible end to the social-liberal coalition, most observers assumed that the FDP would cause this to happen by leaving the coalition. The authors of this piece, however, argue that the end of the coalition could also be brought about by the crisis within the leadership of the SPD. The success of the Greens, the NATO dual-track decision, and questions about economic and social policy prompted increasing divisions among the Social Democrats and their three leaders (Helmut Schmidt, Willy Brandt, and Herbert Wehner), thereby weakening the chancellor's position with respect to the party’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats.

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“The SPD Is Not Your Property”

[ . . . ]

All-out war has broken out within the leadership of the social democracy. FDP chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher's wish that it should not be the Liberals* on whose account the Bonn coalition breaks apart might come true in the not so distant future.

The three at the top** are hacking away at each other with no consideration for the reputation of the party. All the anger and contentiousness that has built up is now coming out in an open dispute.

“Chancellors come and go away, but the party chair will stay,” rhyme Brandt’s staff members, and the SPD chief acts accordingly. For him, the survival of the party takes precedence over the chancellorship of Helmut Schmidt.

The party chair has been “looking beyond Schmidt to the future of the party” (a Brandt confidant) ever since the head of the government gathered only a disappointing 42.9 percent for the SPD in the last Bundestag election, despite dream opponent Franz Josef Strauß.

Brandt knows that many SPD functionaries share his thoughts, including state party chairs Günther Jansen of Schleswig-Holstein and Oskar Lafontaine of Saarland, who see Bonn’s government policies as being responsible for the party’s languishing at the state and local levels. Designated Rhineland-Palatinate SPD party chair Hugo Brandt commented on the situation: “Whoever wants to mobilize the party today has to do it against the government.”

Willy Brandt sees himself as challenged with saving his SPD from what he calls the “biological threat.” The party, Brandt says, cannot leave the younger generation to the protest movements; it must remain open to supporters of the peace movements, to people with alternative lifestyles, and to Greens.

The party chief is sitting, in the words of Hugo Brandt, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” On the one hand, he feels obliged to remain loyal to the government; on the other hand, he can gain credibility among these new target groups only by abandoning the government with respect to peace policies, environmental protection, and energy policies.

His opponent Helmut Schmidt senses that his era is coming to an end. Many Social Democrats have the feeling that the former mover and shaker has lost the reins to Hans-Dietrich Genscher – the secret chancellor – in budget as well as security policies.

* Meaning the FDP – eds.
** Reference to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, SPD chair Willy Brandt, and head of the SPD parliamentary caucus in the Bundestag, Herbert Wehner – eds.

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