Delegates of the SPD, in power with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a grand coalition, targeted the privatisation of Deutsche Bahn which aims to raise 3 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in a 2008 initial public offering.
As a long list of delegates spoke against the plan, chairman Kurt Beck sensed he had no majority and made an offer to postpone any final decision on the sale of a 25 percent stake until it passes through a series of SPD executive boards.
„And if there are still any objections and the concerns you’ve expressed here aren’t cleared up, we’ll just throw the decision back to the next party congress (in 2009),“ Beck said.
„I implore you to give the newly elected party leadership a vote of confidence.“ He won a clear majority for a compromise that will almost certainly push back the IPO timetable.
The popularity of Beck, 58, has suffered because of the SPD’s slump in opinion polls and a divisive row about economic reforms. But he was re-elected party leader on Friday with 95.5 percent of the vote.
Left-wingers feared SPD ministers would settle on an unacceptable compromise with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) to sell the Deutsche Bahn stake to institutional investors rather than small investors.
They managed to include a condition — „otherwise the SPD rejects the sale of shares“ — into a draft resolution on the privatisation. „The Bahn belongs on the track and not on the bourse,“ said SPD delegate Michael Conradi, a former member of parliament, to thunderous applause.
Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee tried to win support by promising to ensure controls that would prevent hedge funds from breaking up Deutsche Bahn.
„We’ll keep the ‚locusts‘ away,“ he said.
But Tiefensee’s attempt was unsuccessful, and Beck intervened to stop the debate and certain defeat.
„I can live with this result,“ Tiefensee said. He rejected suggestions the privatisation would be delayed indefinitely due to CDU opposition to issuing shares to small investors.
„This wasn’t a sign we’re divided. It shows we’re moving forward.“
Any condition allowing the SPD to back privatisation only if the shares are widely held has little chance of winning approval from the CDU, which backs management plans to place the 25 percent with institutional investors.
Merkel’s cabinet endorsed the privatisation but it must be approved by parliament, where support from both CDU and SPD will be needed.
„If the Bahn reform project fails it will be entirely the SPD’s fault,“ said CDU general secretary Ronald Pofalla.