Letter from Berlin Steinmeier Unlikely to Oust Merkel in 2009

Frank-Walter Steinmeier doesn't seem to be looking forward to next year, and who can blame him. The Social Democrat candidate for the 2009 election has never campaigned for office and must unite a bitterly divided party. Few analysts rate his chances of beating Chancellor Angela Merkel.


Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has a mountain to climb.
DDP

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has a mountain to climb.

The chance to run Germany doesn't appear to be filling Frank-Walter Steinmeier with unrestrained joy.

"I know what I'm facing over the next year," the man selected on Sunday as the Social Democratic party candidate in the autumn 2009 election has been telling TV interviewers in a sombre, almost fatalistic tone, like someone who is about to undergo painful treatment for a chronic disease.

"I'm standing to win this election," he said, as if trying to convince himself that coming second isn't the more likely option.

His apparent lack of enthusiasm is understandable given the task in hand -- to lead the deeply divided party out of a record opinion poll slump in time to fight his first ever election campaign.

Steinmeier has gathered a wealth of experience of world diplomacy and government administration in his current job as German foreign minister and before that as chief off staff to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

But this cautious technocrat has never been elected to public office and few commentators believe he has the charisma needed to inspire his demoralized party, let alone the German electorate.

Analysts say the SPD had no choice but to nominate Steinmeier given the absence of more suitable candidates, but they don't hold out much hope that he will beat Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In fact, they say the most likely outcome of the next general election is a continuation of the current grand coalition between Germany's two main parties, Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and Steinmeier's SPD.

The two rival parties have been ruling Europe's largest economy together since 2005 in a loveless marriage that has failed to produce significant economic reforms and has plunged the country's already staid political scene into a dull torpor.

Grand Coalition Until 2013

Expect more of the same, is the depressing prediction by seasoned observers.

"I think another grand coalition has become more probable," Jürgen Falter, political scientist at Mainz University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I can imagine Steinmeier raising SPD support above its current level of around 25 percent in the election but any gains it makes are likely to come from the center ground, which means from the conservatives.

"That means that yet again, neither of the big parties would be strong enough to form a coalition with one of the smaller parties."

It would put the SPD and CDU in the same dilemma they faced after the inconclusive election result in 2005, when the grand coalition was the only viable constellation to form a government and the parties grudgingly agreed to share power.

According to Bernhard Wessels, political analyst at Berlin's Free University, "It would be a major success for Steinmeier if he even manages to match the SPD's 2005 result of 34.2 percent, but I suspect it will be a little less."

It's a depressing prospect for Steinmeier because it would put him in the same position he's in now -- deputy chancellor in a grand coalition, the only likely difference being that the SPD would be a weaker junior coalition partner than it is currently.

"Steinmeier knows that if he doesn't fight a good campaign he will be burned and won't get the chance to fight the election after that. So his euphoria is likely to be limited," said Wessels.

Falter says Steinmeier's lack of campaigning experience shouldn't be overrated, however. "Election campaigning isn't in his nature but you could say the same of Angela Merkel, and she managed to learn it. So he has no real disadvantage in that respect."

Weekend Drama Highlights SPD Woes

The SPD's plight has been highlighted by what one TV commentator described as a "political drama of Shakespearian proportions" this week.

Steinmeier's nomination on Sunday was overshadowed by the surprise resignation of SPD chairman Kurt Beck, who accused unnamed fellow SPD members of spreading lies in the media to undermine him after months of criticism of his leadership, both from within the party and by media commentators.

Beck, the fourth chairman to quit in as many years in exasperation at the unruly party, is being replaced by Franz Müntefering, an old SPD war horse who led the party in 2004 and 2005 before he himself threw in the towel in the face of a left-wing revolt.

The SPD's opinion poll ratings have slumped below 25 percent over the last year amid a bitter struggle between the party's left and right wings about social policy and Beck's decision to sanction regional cooperation deals with the controversial Left Party, made up of former communists and SPD defectors.

Merkel's CDU meanwhile has been scoring over 35 percent, aided by the chancellor's knack for keeping out of domestic political debates and her robust performance on the international stage.

The chaotic reshuffle surrounding Steinmeier's nomination has fuelled speculation that the SPD's days are numbered. "One gets the impression that this party is falling apart," Franz Walter, political scientist at Göttingen University, told ZDF television on Sunday.

It's a sad state of affairs for a proud party that has shaped Germany for over a century.

Born in the 19th century labor movement, the SPD fought for workers' rights, opposed the Nazis, worked to defuse Cold War tensions in the 1970s and led Germany's post-war reconciliation, symbolized by Chancellor Willy Brandt's noble gesture of atonement when he fell to his knees in front of a memorial to the Warsaw Uprising.

Victim of its Own Success

Under Schröder, the SPD went on to impose the strictest welfare cutbacks in generations in an overdue step widely credited with having fuelled Germany's economic recovery since 2005.

But those unpopular cuts led to a string of election defeats and alienated the party's strong left wing, creating divisions from which the SPD hasn't recovered.

Both Steinmeier and Müntefering appealed to the party to unite on Monday and, for the time being, left-wingers in the party appear to be knuckling under.

"The SPD has no choice but to show unity, if they don't they needn't even bother to fight the next election because they will end up in the opposition," says Falter.

But few expect the peace to hold for long. Analysts say Steinmeier and Müntefering are tainted in the eyes left-wingers by their role in shaping the so-called Agenda 2010 of welfare cuts.

"The question is whether the new duo can rally the party around a new vision of social justice and come up with a manifesto that appeals to both sides of the party," says Wessels.

"I have major doubts in that respect. Neither of the two new leaders are great visionaries. And neither of them can credibly assert that they have the potential to win the next election.

"That undermines their authority to an extent because they can't threaten the party that failure to follow them will cost them the election."

In the coming months, the SPD is likely to face a new outbreak of hostilities between those calling for the election to be fought on a pro-reform agenda and those seeking to shift the SPD to the left to fight the resurgent Left Party.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel's government is likely to come to a near-complete standstill over the next year as the SPD and CDU square off ahead of the election.

"It's problematic that Merkel and Steinmeier have to work together in the cabinet and oppose each other outside it. I think we'll have a virtual standstill from January or February," said Falter.

The irony is that after that long election campaign the rivals will probably find each other seated round the exact same cabinet table next year.

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