Germany's ruling Social Democrats on Thursday took the unexpected move towards expelling one of their most prominent economic reformers, sparking new turmoil in the crisis-ridden party only 14 months ahead of the next general election.
Wolfgang Clement, a former economics minister, was told by a regional branch of the party he would be stripped of his SPD membership for “breaches of internal party solidarity”, after he indirectly call earlier this year for voters in a regional election not to support the Social Democratic candidate.
Mr Clement - a former SPD deputy chairman who retired from active politics in 2005 - said he would appeal. Several party leaders also called for the decision to be reversed, amid fears that the issue would further weaken the party.
The expulsion of such a prominent figure – Mr Clement was in the 1990s a widely respected premier of the party’s heartland state of North Rhine-Westphalia – is unprecedented in recent SPD history.
The decision appears set to worsen already substantial problems facing the SPD, which is junior partner to chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in the ruling coalition. The party is trailing badly the CDU in opinion polls, and its leader Kurt Beck, has struggled to impose his authority. The SPD, traditionally Germany's largest party, was this week for the first time overtaken in party membership by the CDU.
Ironically, it was a membership committee in Mr Clement’s home region of North-Rhine Westphalia that made the unexpected announcement on Thursday. the committee cited Mr Clement’s criticism of the energy policy of Andrea Ypsilanti, the SPD’s left-wing candidate in the Hesse election in January.
The national SPD refused to comment, but noted that since Mr Clement would appeal his expulsion was not final. SPD leaders were aware of the regional party’s inquiry into Mr Clement, but were not prepared for such a drastic or unexpected decision.
Mr Clement, a plain-talking politician, became economics minister in 2002 under Gerhard Schröder. He was a key figure behind the implementation of the ex-chancellor’s Agenda 2010 social and labour market reform programme.
Economists have credited the reform programme as playing a key role Germany's economic recovery in recent years, but the deep cuts in jobless and social benefits stirred political protests and deep divisions within the SPD.
Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD’s environment minister called on the party to review the decision. Even though the comments about Ms Ypsilanti were “stupid” Mr Clement should not be expelled, he said.
Ronald Pofalla, CDU secretary general, said the expulsion marked a “further rejection by the SPD of the Agenda 2010 programme” and marked a “low point” in the party’s history.