Negotiations to form a new German government were thrown into jeopardy Monday as the leader of one of the main parties said he would step down after losing an internal power struggle. The chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Franz Mьntefering, said he would not run for re-election next month, after the party's executive committee rejected his candidate for the party's No. 2 position.
Mьntefering, 65, is representing the Social Democrats in arduous negotiations to form a government with the Christian Democratic Union, led by Angela Merkel. The parties had hoped to wrap up the coalition talks in time to elect Merkel as chancellor in Parliament on Nov. 22. The disarray in the Social Democratic Party, however, makes that timing appear unrealistic, according to political analysts here. It could even threaten a coalition agreement, since analysts say Mьntefering is one of the only figures in the party who can impose order on its bickering factions. "This is a political earthquake, not only for the Social Democrats but for the coalition negotiations, too," said Uwe Andersen, a professor of political science at Ruhr University in Bochum. A shrewd party operative well respected by the opposition, Mьntefering has played a key role in managing the transition from the center-left government of Gerhard Schrцder to a grand coalition of the two major parties. He helped broker the deal under which Schrцder agreed to relinquish the chancellorship to Merkel in return for several powerful ministries. Mьntefering had been expected to become vice chancellor and labor minister in the new government, making him Germany's second-most powerful politician, after Merkel. Following his party defeat, however, he said he was not sure he would serve at all. His announcement, in a terse news conference after the party meeting, prompted a leading conservative politician, Edmund Stoiber, to question whether a grand coalition government was still viable. Stoiber, the prime minister of Bavaria, is the designated economics minister under Merkel, and he has been a constant presence at her side in the talks with Mьntefering and Schrцder. "Angela Merkel's position is not shattered, but it is undermined," said Jьrgen Falter, a professor of political science at Mainz University. "We are a step closer to new elections." Neither the Social Democrats nor the Christian Democrats relish the prospect of a new election, and there is little public support for it. Schrцder seemed anguished by the setback for Mьntefering, a close ally, but he insisted that the coalition talks should be brought to a successful conclusion. "There mustn't be any impact on the creation of a stable government," he said in Berlin. Schrцder may not have much influence over the outcome, analysts said. His power within the Social Democratic Party has waned since he said he would not serve in the next government. In recent weeks, he has been a receding presence on the political stage - spending much of his time abroad, most recently at a European Union meeting in Britain. Like Mьnterfering, Schrцder, 61, represents an older generation of Social Democrats who are increasingly at odds with younger party members. Some of these up-and-comers are more leftist than the party mainstream and are fiercely opposed Schrцder's efforts to overhaul the German economy. These mounting pressures led Schrцder to call early elections last May. The Social Democrats confounded predictions by finishing in a virtual tie with the Christian Democrats, which set the stage for weeks of horse-trading as they moved toward the first grand coalition in four decades. Within the Social Democrats, however, the tensions remained. They finally erupted at the recent party meeting, when Mьntefering backed a longtime aide, Kajo Wasserhцvel, to be general secretary. Political analysts said some of the younger members were antagonized by what they viewed as Mьntefering's high-handed ways. The dissidents put forward their own candidate, Andrea Nahles, 35, a former leader of the party's youth wing and an unofficial leader of its left-wing faction. She was chosen in a secret ballot, by 23 to 14, reports New York Times. I.L.