08/14/2012 05:27 PM

Letter From Berlin

Pressure Building to Pick Merkel Challenger


Germany's main opposition party, the center-left Social Democratic Party, is agonizing over who to choose as its candidate to challenge Angela Merkel in the 2013 election. None of three main contenders is ideal. The party wants to wait until January to decide -- but faces growing pressure to make the nomination.

The opposition center-left Social Democrats are under increasing pressure to nominate a candidate to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in the national election in autumn 2013. The party leadership had wanted to wait until early next year before making the selection, but supporters of the various possible candidates have started jostling for position.

There's a risk that if the SPD waits much longer, it will be consumed by in-fighting at a time when it should be directing fire at Merkel in the coming make-or-break months of the euro crisis.

The SPD could enter government next year, possibly as junior partner to Merkel's conservatives in a repeat of the grand coalition that ruled Germany between 2005 and 2009 in her first term, or as the senior partner in a center-left alliance with the Greens. Merkel's current coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, has seen its support slump and may be too weak to help Merkel secure a third term.

The SPD has supported Merkel's euro policy in parliamentary votes so far, providing her with comfortable majorities that have lessened the impact of increasingly vocal rebels in her own ranks. But the SPD has criticized her handling of the crisis and last week called for common debt issuance -- a step southern European nations have been clamouring for, and which Merkel is vigorously opposed to.

The party's leadership doesn't want to be rushed into a decision as crucial as the candidacy. The problem is that none of the three possible contenders is ideal.

A Firebrand, A Technocrat and a Hybrid

Sigmar Gabriel, the tub-thumbing SPD chairman, is eloquent and has strong political instincts, but he sometimes takes his rhetoric too far, and opinion polls show a large majority of Germans don't want him as chancellor.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD's parliamentary group leader, was foreign minister under Merkel and then ran against her as the SPD's candidate in the 2009 election. He's a solid, level-headed and experienced administrator but he lacks fire and has the stigma of defeat after losing to Merkel, not a brilliant campaigner herself, in 2009. In addition, there is some doubt about whether his political ambitions have dampened by personal concerns after he donated a kidney to his wife, Elke Büdenbender, in 2010.

Then there's Peer Steinbrück, the former finance minister under Merkel. He won kudos for getting Germany through the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 largely unscathed, but his nomination could run into opposition from the powerful left wing of the SPD. Another issue is that he's combative to the point of being undiplomatic, and has in the past drawn the ire of the US government, the Swiss and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for critical remarks on the financial crisis, tax havens and budget policy respectively.

The SPD's leadership had managed to keep a lid on the candidate debate until this weekend when it erupted with a call from Torsten Albig, the SPD governor of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, for Steinmeier to get the nomination. Steinmeier was a strong leader and had done "great work" as parliamentary group leader, Albig told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. "He would be a good chancellor for our country," Albig said.

Merkel Ahead of All Three

But on Monday, Peer Steinbrück's supporters came out of the woodwork. Nils Schmid, the head of the SPD in the large southern state of Baden-Württemberg, told Bild newspaper that Steinbrück would make a good candidate as well. "People have a lot of faith in the ex-finance minister and he's very popular," said Schmid.

During a telephone conference with SPD leaders on Monday, Andrea Nahles, the party's general secretary, urged her colleagues to keep quiet about the candidacy. "It's unwise to be preoccupied with oneself in public," she told reporters afterwards. "I recommend focusing on the issues at hand."

Current opinion polls show Merkel well ahead of all the possible challengers. The latest Deutschlandtrend survey for public broadcaster ARD released on August 1 showed 76 percent of respondents viewed Merkel as a good stateswoman. The corresponding ratings were 59 percent for Steinmeier, 55 percent for Steinbrück and 33 percent for Gabriel.

But that could change rapidly in the coming months if the euro crisis forces her to make concessions that would impose greater risks and burdens on German taxpayers -- and if the German economy finally stalls.


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH