From “Moderniser” to “Traditionalist”: Oskar Lafontaine and German Social Democracy in the 1990s

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Dostal, Jörg Michael
Issue Date
Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 23-37
Oskar Lafontaine’s resignation as finance minister of the Federal Republic, as chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and as member of the German parliament on 11 March 1999 was widely perceived as a dramatic episode in the debate about the future direction of social democracy in Europe. Directly after the resignation of the second most important politician of the ruling SPD-Green Party coalition, his decision was explained on four accounts. First, the relationship between Lafontaine and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was understood as a power struggle between the leader of the major party in government on the one hand, and the leader of the government on the other. Second, Lafontaine was presented as a ‘traditionalist’, who preached doctrines about state intervention in the economy that were no longer accept- able in the global discourse of economic deregulation. Third, in the short period between the defeat of the Kohl government on 27 September 1998 and his resignation, Lafontaine had gained a certain degree of notoriety as “the most dan- gerous man in Europe” (The Sun ). In the media, he was presented as too left- wing a politician to fit into the supposedly more ‘modern’ political project of the ‘new centre’ in Germany or the ‘third way’ in Britain. Fourth, for the first time in the history of the German SPD, the resignation of its leader had a strong impact on the markets: a short term rise of the Euro against the Dollar, and a sharp rise of stock market prices underlined the satisfaction of some ob- servers about the end of a long political career. In the following article, Oskar Lafontaine’s political life will be discussed in or- der to highlight the shifting meaning of ‘modernity’ in social democratic dis- course in the Federal Republic and in Europe. The focus will be on Lafontaine’s failure to transfer successfully his standing as a social democratic ‘moderniser’ (which he possessed in the 1980s) into the 1990s. It will be argued here that analysis of his failure helps to understand why many social democrats have abandoned former core beliefs about the corporatist regulation of society in favour of the ‘chance’ of globalisation, and of market-driven ‘modernisation’.
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Graduate School of Public Administration (행정대학원)Dept. of Public Administration (행정학과)Journal Papers (저널논문_행정학과)
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