Peer Steinbrück, 66, the man nominated by the center-left Social Democrats to topple Chancellor Angela Merkel in the general election this September, doesn't beat around the bush. That's part of his problem, but it is also part of what made him a popular politician in the past. And on Sunday he was right to admit that he could claim no credit for the SPD's victory in the Lower Saxony state election. He went further, saying that the party had done well despite him, rather than because of him.
"I'm very aware of the fact that there wasn't much tailwind from Berlin and I'm also aware that I'm partly responsible for that," the notoriously outspoken former finance minister, who has confounded his party with a series of gaffes in recent months, told party supporters as the results came in on Sunday night.
SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel agreed. "If we get a result like this when we mess up, we can do anything!" he called out to supporters on Sunday night.
It wasn't exactly a vote of confidence in Steinbrück, who stunned his party by declaring recently that German chancellors were underpaid, an ill-judged comment that compounded the controversy over lucrative speaking engagements in the last three years that earned him over 1 million -- not the most convincing CV for a politician who is supposed to be defending the interests of the little man.
But the Lower Saxony vote has given him a second chance.
"He got away with a black eye," Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told SPIEGL ONLINE. "He's in a better position than before the election. But he still has to get closer to ordinary SPD supporters. His task is to mobilize voters by appealing to certain values. He's an intelligent man, it's not an insurmountable task, but he has yet to complete it."
Not In Tune With the Party - Yet
Steinbrück's pet projects are tax and finance policy. He proved his worth as a crisis manager during the 2007-2009 financial and economic crisis when he was finance minister under Merkel in her first term.
But his no-nonsense pragmatism and focus on finance are at odds with the working class idealism of the party which is proud of its roots in the 19th century labor movement. Part of his charisma is that he doesn't avoid a fight, which sets him apart from the far more cautious Merkel. But his combative nature sometimes makes him speak out without immediately thinking of the consequences. He can come across as arrogant.
When the SPD picked him as its chancellor candidate nominee in October, he seemed like a better choice than the even more loose-tongued Gabriel and than parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who lost to Merkel in the 2009 election and seemed to lack the will and the drive to take her on a second time.
Steinbrück was chosen because he's an attack dog, but he kept barking up the wrong tree. He didn't make friends, for example, by saying in a newspaper interview last month that Merkel's popularity was in part due to the fact that she is a woman.
Both he and the SPD tanked in opinion polls as a direct result of that and other missteps. It was the worst possible beginning to Steinbrück's campaign.
A Forsa public opinion survey released last week put the SPD at 23 percent, it lowest rating since mid-2011, against 43 percent for Merkel's conservatives. His performance in a direct comparison with Merkel was even worse. Asked who they would vote for if chancellors were elected directly, only 18 percent of respondents said they would pick Steinbrück. Merkel got 59 percent.
Lower Saxony Shows SPD Has a Chance
When the SPD's campaign in Lower Saxony started coming apart, Steinbrück got the blame. In the months leading up to the vote, the center-left's clear lead over the center-right alliance of Christian Democratic Governor David McAllister gradually evaporated. Things got so bad that McAllister sarcastically urged Steinbrück to keep on making campaign visits to the state.
By last Friday, media speculation was growing that Steinbrück may even be jettisoned if the SPD failed to win Lower Saxony. It would have been a disastrous move because his successor would have been labelled as a second-choice candidate. It would have made the SPD's fight to unseat the popular, trusted chancellor even harder.
But the Lower Saxony win, though narrow, has given Steinbrück the chance of a comeback. It demonstrates that, were he able to stay on message, he could indeed end up in the Chancellery. The party is building a campaign platform that could well appeal to voters: It wants to cap housing rent increases, introduce tougher banking rules, track down wealthy tax evaders and push for a minimum wage, among other planks.
An additional bonus is that the SPD has the means now to put Merkel under real pressure because the Lower Saxony victory has given the center-left an absolute majority in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber. It can now block legislation and enforce amendments. In effect, Germany has a grand coalition because Merkel will need center-left approval for many laws. Steinbrück can use this power to score points with voters in the coming months.
Steinbrück made plain on Sunday that he knows he has to raise his game. "A change in government at the national level is possible," he said. "I'm reliable and I want to win with you."
Even though Merkel still has the upper hand, the vote shows that the general election cold be a tighter race than most people had expected.
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