Cablegate: Lafontaine Steps Aside in Saarland Campaign

Published: Tue 25 Nov 2003 11:29 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The Saarland Social Democratic Party
(SPD) selected chairman Heiko Maas to challenge Christian
Democratic Union (CDU) Minister-President (M-P) Peter
Mueller in the September 2004 state elections. Maas'
nomination to challenge the popular Mueller ended long
speculation that the party would choose Oskar Lafontaine
(former Saarland M-P and later federal Finance Minister).
According to press reports, the national SPD leadership
backed Maas even though polls favored Lafontaine (overall,
the SPD trails the CDU in Saarland by 21 points).
Lafontaine, an outspoken voice of the SPD's left wing, has
a long history of publicly challenging Chancellor Schroeder
on a number of issues (including economic reforms), and the
chancellor was allegedly wary that Lafontaine could have
used the nomination to widen his own power base. Observers
expect the SPD to gain ground in Saarland by next
September. END SUMMARY.
2. (U) Following a lengthy internal debate, the Saarland
SPD recently chose Heiko Maas to run against the popular
Mueller in the upcoming elections. According to media
reports, the party chose Maas under pressure from
Schroeder, who was reluctant to run the risk that
Lafontaine would use the nomination to seek to re-build his
power base in the national SPD Lafontaine enjoys strong
name recognition (in contrast to the young Maas, a relative
unknown) and remains a popular figure in Saarland and among
left-wing activists.
3. (SBU) Maas denied reports that Schroeder pressured him
to run, and SPD contacts insist that Lafontaine never
disputed Maas' right (as SPD chief for Saarland) to have
first right of refusal at being the standard bearer.
Although Lafontaine was and remains a national figure, Maas
is clearly the "establishment" candidate with the solid
support of the party apparatus in Saarland. Maas' staff
predict that Lafontaine will set aside his own political
ambitions and follow the party line, including campaigning
for Maas and the SPD.
4. (SBU) COMMENT: Party insiders say Maas likely will
pursue a strategy similar to Schroeder's 1998 national
campaign, when Lafontaine secured left-wing votes through
his support of the SPD ticket while Schroeder attracted the
centrist element. The SPD needs to energize its rank-and-
file if it is to have any hope to break the CDU's absolute
majority in Saarland, and the key to success is high voter
turnout. If, as in recent elections, SPD voters turn out
in low numbers, the SPD will lose. A good contact, Maas
has organizational and political savvy that belies his
young age (33), and our many meetings suggest he could be a
pro-American force along the lines of Kurt Beck (the SPD
Minister-President of neighboring Rheinland-Pfalz).
5. (SBU) The SPD is at a low ebb nationally and has lost
11 mayoral elections in Saarland since Mueller assumed
power in 1999. Election observers expect the SPD to gain
ground in Saarland, where the political mainstream lies to
the left of center. With centrist Maas in front and
vigorous support from Lafontaine -- together with expected
gains by the Greens and a weak showing by the FDP (Free
Democrats), who may not cross the five percent threshold --
the SPD/Greens have an outside chance to unseat the CDU in
the September 2004 Landtag elections. END COMMENT.
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