From Pen-Pusher to Chancellor Candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Reluctant Path into the Spotlight

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate and veteran bureaucrat, never wanted power. Over the course of the election campaign, he has transformed himself from a dull pen-pusher to something approaching a passionate speaker. But is it enough to convince Germany's voters?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier gestures during a campaign rally in Stuttgart on Sept. 17, 2009.
REUTERS

Frank-Walter Steinmeier gestures during a campaign rally in Stuttgart on Sept. 17, 2009.

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"Please welcome the future chancellor of Germany," says the announcer. "Yes we Fraaank!" shout his supporters in response.

It seems ridiculous to pretend as if the man walking into the room, Social Democratic chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is going to be the future chancellor of Germany, when his party is currently polling at about 22 to 23 percent of the vote. How can someone who doesn't exactly ooze charisma be compared with US President Barack Obama? And can German voters truly expect "change" from a candidate who has held senior positions in two administrations over the last 11 years, and whose last hope of becoming chancellor is based on a shaky alliance with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party?

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Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Rarely have a chancellor candidate's prospects of winning a German election race been this slim. Instead of asking themselves "who will be chancellor?" the real question Germans are asking themselves in this campaign revolves around the sort of coalition government current Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to form to remain in office.

Difficult to Get to Know

Steinmeier has been a stalwart candidate, a man who has stoically, almost serenely, made his way through the campaign, sometimes even surprising audiences on market squares and in television debates. In the end, he was a better candidate than his friends had feared and his rivals had hoped.

Nevertheless, most citizens still don't really know who Steinmeier is, this man with his indefatigable claim to be the next chancellor. He has made it exceedingly difficult to get to know him.

The "Merkel experiment" proved to German citizens that even shy, awkward people could become chancellor. The "Steinmeier experiment," on the other hand, goes a step further. It is the first candidacy of a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, a man who is somehow expected to transform himself overnight from a dry, top-level government official into a fiery leading candidate.

Perhaps this is the sort of experiment that simply cannot succeed the first time around, at least not in a business whose most important quality is the speed at which things change.

Slow but Steady

One of Steinmeier's favorite books is called "The Discovery of Slowness." In the novel, author Sten Nadolny attempts to dispel the notion that slowness is a bad thing. His protagonist, John Franklin, is a man whose character traits stand in the way of his desires, particularly his dream of becoming the captain of a big ship. Franklin operates at his own speed, which happens to be incredibly slow, and as a result he seems inconspicuous and has no charisma to speak of. He has the reputation of being dry and incapable of entertaining his fellow human beings. When he talks, it's as if he were hammering nails into a wall.

Nadolny, leaning across the table and looking around, as if to see if anyone is listening, says that he isn't sure he should be saying this, but Steinmeier reminds him of his character John Franklin.

This is by no means a slight, from Nadolny's perspective. Franklin seems to be as unsuited for the role of a sea captain as Steinmeier is for that of a campaigner. And yet, several years later, when he finally makes it onto a ship, with a bit of luck and great deal of perseverance, his shortcoming suddenly proves to be a strength.

Through diligence and hard work, Franklin manages to compensate for his natural deficits, his lack of agility and sparkle -- what politicians would call the Schröder factor, referring to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He has attempted to make up for his slowness by being more accurate, thorough, conscientious and efficient than others. In the end, he and his crew sail off to the ends of the earth.

Will Steinmeier manage to pull off the same feat?

'I Am Not Gerhard Schröder'

During a panel discussion in Berlin, the moderator, wanting to switch to a different topic, smiles warmly at the candidate and says: "There are personalities in politics who behave egocentrically in their thirst for power. You don't seem to be this type of person."

"What you probably mean to say is: You are not like Gerhard Schröder," says Steinmeier, wrinkling his brow. "All I can say to that is this: I am clearly not Gerhard Schröder. In that sense, it's a silly question, but it's one that I have to address, unfortunately." It is a rare moment of agitation for a man whose feathers are not easily ruffled.

The former chancellor's presence has overshadowed Steinmeier's campaign. Fellow members of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), citizens and journalists all compare him to Schröder, and in most cases unfavorably. It is one of the many oddities of this candidacy that Steinmeier's main political mentor, ironically enough, has created expectations for politicians running for office in Germany that Steinmeier cannot fulfill. Schröder set a pace that is too fast for his protégé. In his campaigns, the former chancellor was consistently snappy, spontaneous and impulsive, and even though his appearances seemed boorish at times, he was always a dynamic campaigner. More than just a candidate, Schröder was an entertainer.

Steinmeier is less skilled at this, and the expectation that he ought to be isn't doing him any good. Germans have gotten used to Merkel's dullness, but Steinmeier is a different story. This summer, whenever he has tried to energize his party by reminding voters of the SPD's remarkable comeback in the 2005 race, he has consistently heard the same bitter response: But that was when we had Gerd!

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