SPD leader hits out at Merkel

Angela Merkel came back down to earth on Monday from the heights of the G8 summit to confront problems in her own political backyard, including tensions with her coalition partner and a scandal lapping at one of her top aides.

With the ink barely dry on last week’s climate change breakthrough at the Group of Eight wealthy nations’ summit, the German chancellor faced a barrage of criticism from the Social Democrats on her handling of the summit and the political direction of her party.

In what was seen as a deliberate move to deflect attention from the success Ms Merkel scored in Germany with her handling of last week’s tricky G8 negotiations, Kurt Beck, SPD leader, attacked the “neo-liberal course” of the chancellor’s Christian Democrats.

He wrote in a German newspaper that the CDU’s political approach was not sufficiently “grounded” in the needs of ordinary people, arguing that CDU plans to cut the role of the state would lead to deep social divisions.

He was also unusually forceful in attacking aspects of Ms Merkel’s G8 leadership, saying in a separate interview he was “bitterly disappointed” as he had “expected a stronger stance from the chancellor” on controlling hedge funds – a popular topic in SPD ranks.

The summit appealed to such funds to increase transparency but did not endorse the introduction of a voluntary code of conduct, as Mr Beck would have preferred.

The comments by Mr Beck, who is not member of Ms Merkel’s cabinet, contrasted with the positive feedback from SPD ministers, who praised her handling of the climate issue.

The SPD has for months been trailing the CDU in opinion polls and Mr Beck’s outbursts were seen as an effort to remind voters of his party’s agenda.

In a fresh blow, Mr Beck scored badly in a poll of 800 top managers in Germany, receiving a political performance rating of only 3.7 on a scale where 1 is “very good”. Ms Merkel gained top marks with a 2.4 score.

While reflecting the SPD’s own relatively weak standing, Mr Beck’s comments – reinforced by other senior SPD officials – are an irritation for the chancellor, who would rather keep coalition bickering out of the spotlight.

Her spokesman on Monday shrugged off Mr Beck’s comments, and said the chancellor believed the coalition was “making good progress” on resolving policy differences between the SPD and CDU, especially on introducing minimum wages for certain sectors and on reforming nursing care insurance. The coalition partners are due for talks next Monday to finalise the policy agenda for the summer.

SPD officials admitted they feared another political boost for Ms Merkel after the European Union summit in Brussels on June 21-22, where German officials are confident the chancellor will secure a deal on reviving the bloc’s stalled constitutional treaty.

A separate worry for Ms Merkel is accusations that Thomas de Maizière, her chancellery chief of staff, had early knowledge of an unfolding corruption scandal in eastern Germany. Mr de Maizière, a CDU politician, was interior minister in Saxony, until joining Ms Merkel’s government in November 2005. Prosecutors are investigating evidence gathered by Saxony’s internal intelligence agency of alleged ties of politicians, police and judges to organised crime gangs.

Members of Saxony parliament at the weekend accused Mr de Maizière of failing in mid-2005 to inform the parliament’s intelligence committee of the evidence. He argued on Monday that the evidence was not substantial enough to require a parliamentary report.

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