Outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told his party Monday that Germany's new government will safeguard the legacy of his "seven good years" in office, delivering a passionate appeal for support that was greeted by a lengthy standing ovation. Making probably one of his last appearances as Germany's leader, Schroeder told a Social Democrats conference that the deal to form a government with the conservatives of his former rival, Chancellor-designate Angela Merkel, bears an "unmistakable Social Democratic signature."
"Dear comrades, I think we can say that in the past seven years, we have increased respect in the world for our country, our Germany, and I am sure that we will safeguard that together," he said.
"The SPD is the party of peace," he said, alluding to his popular opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. "With our foreign policy, we have repositioned our country as a medium-sized power of peace, self-confident but never arrogant."
Schroeder has had an up-and-down relationship with his party since coming to power in 1998 in a center-left coalition with the Greens.
Many members were angered by his drive for limited reform of the welfare state, which he launched in 2003 without first consulting the party. Still, they admired his stance on Iraq and the campaigning skills that saved the SPD from a heavier defeat in September's election.
"Even though it was not always easy in these seven years, I think they were seven good years for our country, for people in our country and in the end, this will be proven, despite painful defeats, also for our cause," Schroeder said.
The SPD, he added, has shown that it is "the only party ... that can achieve a balance between economic efficiency and the social cohesion of our society, and that must remain the case."
Schroeder did not mention Merkel by name in a roughly 40-minute speech.
However, he told some 500 party delegates, "it has become clear that Germans want cooperation that goes far beyond the political camps to date."
"I will put it mildly: all of us would be ill-advised to not take this chance," he said. Delegates later Monday gave the deal their overwhelming approval, the AP says.
Schroeder, who did not seek a post in the Merkel Cabinet, ended his speech by saying that he would continue to support the party "in solidarity but as a free man."
The outgoing chancellor beamed and flashed his trademark thumbs-up signal as delegates greeted his comments with a minutes-long standing ovation.
Schroeder remains an elected member of parliament.