Letter from Berlin SPD Still Looking for a Leader to Challenge Merkel

Not long ago, Germany's center-left Social Democrats looked in good shape to challenge Angela Merkel for the Chancellery in 2013 general elections. But with just a year to go before the vote, the party has yet to settle on a candidate. The delay could prove harmful to the party.

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It could have been so easy. In May, Germany's Social Democrats trounced Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in a crucial election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state. The new SPD governor, Hannelore Kraft, instantly became a household name and a woman who suddenly seemed a real threat to unseat Merkel in 2013 general elections. She was energetic, competent, pugnacious and, in a June survey, more popular than the chancellor herself.

The only problem? She didn't want to become the SPD's candidate for chancellor, preferring instead to stay in her home state for the five-year term she had just won.

Thus, the SPD was condemned to a year of speculation over who would emerge as the party's choice to challenge Merkel -- an ongoing sideshow which has begun to show signs of transforming the party from a real alternative to the chancellor's oft-disputatious coalition into a farce of ego, evasion and indecision.

In reality, the extended bit of political theater has been going on for much longer than that, though. Absent a US-style primary system, German political parties choose their top candidates internally -- and in July 2011, a trio of SPD alpha males held a press conference making it clear that one of them would ultimately lead the party in the battle against Merkel.

Since then, however, even as the election draws closer and Merkel's coalition government continues to offer the opposition attractive targets for attack, the SPD has refused to unite behind a single leader. Despite indications to the contrary, the message has remained tortuously consistent: We haven't decided yet which of the three will grab the reins next year. And the ongoing equivocation has proven effective at keeping the SPD's nationwide survey results stagnating at between 25 and 30 percent.

Vanishing Lead

It wasn't supposed to be like that. Just last spring, it had looked like the SPD, together with their preferred coalition partners, the Greens, would have little trouble unseating a Merkel government that had been most notable for the dramatic collapse of junior coalition partner the Free Democrats (FDP), and for headline-grabbing internal bickering. Together, the SPD and the Greens would have garnered 55 percent of the vote had elections been held in April, 2011 -- against 37 percent for Merkel's conservatives combined with the FDP.

But this month that once substantial lead seems to have vanished almost entirely. A survey earlier this month found that the SPD-Green pairing stood at 43 percent against 41 percent for Merkel's current coalition (see graphic). Part of that is due to falling poll numbers for the Greens. In addition, Germany remains relatively untouched by the euro crisis raging across much of the continent, ensuring some measure of consistent support for Merkel's government. But SPD stagnation hasn't helped.

More to the point, though, German elections have become more personality driven in recent years. And Merkel's approval ratings have remained solid, particularly when measured against the SPD's leadership trio.

One of them appears to have dropped out of the running. Party leader Sigmar Gabriel has read the writing on the wall -- in the form of popularity ratings which have him at 16 percent against Merkel's 60 percent in a survey directly comparing the two. He reportedly withdrew his name from consideration recently.

When it comes to the other two, however, the party continues to do its utmost to maintain the fiction that no decision has been made, insisting that a candidate might not be chosen until next January.

Steering Clear of the Fallout

In some ways, the contest is fairly even. Frank-Walter Steinmeier is currently the party's parliamentary floor leader and challenged Merkel for the Chancellery in 2009 elections. Prior to that, he was foreign minister in Merkel's first cabinet in a government which paired her conservatives with the SPD.

The other possibility, Peer Steinbrück, does not currently hold a party position, though he is an SPD member of parliament. He was, however, Merkel's finance minister during the 2008-2009 financial crash and is widely seen as a primary reason for Germany's success in largely steering clear of the fallout.

Neither is perfect, though. Steinmeier, while popular among the party rank-and-file, is hardly charismatic. Furthermore, in 2009 he led the SPD to its worst general election results since World War II -- and he has shown little desire to try again this time around. Steinbrück, meanwhile, is popular and respected among the populace at large but suffers from Mitt Romney-itis among party members. He doesn't have strong grassroots support.

Recently, it has begun looking like he could end up being chosen after all, though. Indeed, the party tasked him with coming up with a plan to introduce controls on the financial markets. His recently released report calls for far-reaching reforms to the banking sector, including splitting off investment banking from the traditional lending and savings functions associated with retail banking. He also foresees the creation of a bank-funded aid fund to bailout troubled financial institutions, as well as controls on certain types of transactions. Both the timing and scope of the report make it seem like a significant plank in a campaign platform.

In an interview with SPIEGEL published on Monday, he further outlined his vision for what the coming campaign might look like. "The parliamentary elections will be a fundamental debate over the internal cohesion of our society," he said.

'Ripped to Shreds'

Even if the SPD quickly decides on an undisputed leader heading into the election year, the battle against Merkel remains uphill. For one, the Social Democrats have found themselves in an uncomfortable position in recent months, feeling compelled to repeatedly side with the chancellor in crucial parliamentary votes relating to propping up the common currency. Even as several lawmakers in Merkel's own camp have broken ranks, she has repeatedly been bailed out by the SPD -- not a particularly effective strategy for defeating the incumbent.

Secondly, while Merkel has become the bogeywoman for much of Europe, her handling of the euro-crisis has earned her high marks at home. The country's economy hummed in 2011 and, while slowing this year, has not experienced the kind of trauma seen elsewhere on the Continent. Unemployment numbers, at 6.5 percent, likewise remain better than they have been in several years. Convincing voters that she deserves the boot will be difficult for any SPD candidate. And Steinbrück's popularity ratings relative to Merkel are but 28 to 50 percent.

But it would presumably become easier if the SPD ceased focusing on the candidate question and begin positioning itself for the coming battle. As Steinbrück made clear in the SPIEGEL interview, though, that is not a view that he shares.

"You can't let a candidate run for too long," he said. "He will be dragged along, cut apart, put back together and ripped to shreds again -- from both the political opponents and the media." But, he allowed, "the time is coming when we will have to present a candidate."

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