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W. Germany's Social Democrats launch into post-Brandt era. `Grand Old Man' hopes his exit provides stability for party

The resignation of Willy Brandt, the ``Grand Old Man'' of German Social Democracy, is the second of his long political career. On Monday, Mr. Brandt resigned the chairmanship of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) he had led for 23 years. He resigned, he said, to prevent a confusing and jarring debate over his leadership in a year in which legislative elections are scheduled in five of West Germany's 11 states.

In 1974, Brandt resigned as head of the West German government after an East German spy was discovered on his personal staff.

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He nevertheless remained chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and, in 1976, was elected President of the Socialist International. He also headed the World Bank's North-South Commission.

Brandt's current term was to end in June 1988, when a regular party convention was to have elected a successor. But for at least the past year, party regulars have grumbled about their chairman, saying he was letting the reins slacken.

During the campaign leading up to the Jan. 25 national parliamentary election, Brandt made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the SDP's candidate for chancellor, Johannes Rau.

Although few expected a Social Democratic victory, many attributed the party's poor showing - at 37 percent, its lowest in more than 25 years - to Brandt's attitude.

But Brandt finally stumbled over his attempt to appoint a woman who was neither a German citizen nor a member of the party to be its spokesperson. As Brandt himself said in announcing his resignation, the debate over the appointment was but a symptom of a larger loss of confidence in his leadership.

The party executive committee immediately nominated Hans-Jochen Vogel, the party's parliamentary leader, to succeed Brandt as national chairman. He will be confirmed by an extraordinary party convention expected to be held in June.

Mr. Rau, who is premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was renominated as a deputy SDP chairman; Oskar Lafontaine, the premier of the Saarland, was nominated as the other deputy.

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Mr. Lafontaine, the darling of the party's left wing, hopes to be the Social Democratic candidate for the chancellory in the next election. Mr. Vogel was the party's unsuccessful candidate four years ago.

The new leadership council still has to decide whether the party should openly seek a coalition with the environmental Greens party to its left, or attempt to destroy the Greens by enticing their members away, or maintain a strict distance from the Greens.

Lafontaine, who has suggested that West Germany should consider following France's example and withdraw its armed forces from NATO's integrated commands while remaining part of the NATO political alliance, seems to prefer the second course. Vogel is seen as leaning toward the third option.

Brandt fled Germany in 1933, when the Gestapo went looking for him. After the war, he eventually became mayor of West Berlin, winning international prominence during the years of the Russian's main challenges to the city's freedom. In 1959, he was the prime force behind the Social Democratic Party's decision to slough off Marxism in order to become a broad-based ``people's party.''

This decision in turn made it possible for him to become, in 1969, the first Social Democrat in 40 years to head a German government.

In 1971, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Ostpolitik, or Eastern policy, that involved negotiation of non-aggression pacts with the Soviet Union and Poland and the opening of diplomatic relations with those nations and with East Germany.

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