Invisible Steinbrück: Is the SPD Hiding Its Chancellor Candidate?

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SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück is hoping that an attack campaign against Angela Merkel will boost his party's fading fortunes. Zoom
DPA

SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück is hoping that an attack campaign against Angela Merkel will boost his party's fading fortunes.

Peer Steinbrück launched the most important part of his campaign on Tuesday in an effort to boost his candidacy and his troubled party, the Social Democrats. But he still hasn't solved his biggest problem -- an inability to differentiate himself from incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In Germany, the main stretch of the election campaign, usually just the last few weeks before the election, is referred to as the heisse Phase -- the hot phase. With Angela Merkel's main challenger for the office of chancellor lagging behind the conservative in polls, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück hit the campaign trail much earlier than usual on Tuesday.

"So far we've been at training camp," Steinbrück told reporters. "But tomorrow we will take to the streets." At a press conference in Berlin, he also presented the SPD's first campaign posters. Oddly, the party's chancellor candidate himself is missing from the images.

The campaign posters shed light on some of the issues that are emerging as leading concerns for voters as they head to the ballot box on Sept. 22. One shows a family standing next to moving boxes expressing their wish for more modest rents in a country that has seen significant rent increases in many urban areas in recent years. Another shows a carpenter and a cleaning lady both pleading for a national minimum wage, which doesn't exist in many industries in Germany. Yet another shows a mother with a multiethnic child calling for more day care slots -- also a hot-button topic right now. All feature the party's election year slogan: "We Decide Together."

The party plans to post around 8,000 of the signs across Germany. In some towns, small images of Steinbrück announcing dates for nearby stump speeches will be affixed to the posters. For the most part, however, his visage will be absent. Is it a sign that the SPD is somehow ashamed of candidate Steinbrück, who has failed to gain traction with his campaign and has suffered some embarrassing gaffes along the way?

It's the kind of conclusion the SPD leadership would heatedly deny. Instead they argue they are playing down Steinbrück's image as a deliberate campaign strategy -- one aimed at focusing on issues and differentiating itself from the personality-driven approach adopted by the Merkel camp. That, at least, is the official line.

With seven weeks left to go before election day, the SPD is kicking its campaign into high gear very early by German standards. Chancellor Merkel will be away on vacation until mid-August and the SPD wants to take advantage of the time to gain ground. Steinbrück has planned around 100 public appearances -- an average of two per day between now and Sept. 22. During the second and third phases of the campaign, the party plans to release new posters -- including ones that feature Steinbrück's face. A spokesman for the party said the SPD is in no way trying to hide or down play its candidate for the Chancellery.

At the press conference in Berlin, Steinbrück addressed major issues important to the SPD with which he hopes to secure a lead in opinion polls -- subjects like bottlenecks in public investment, an urgently needed expansion of Germany's broadband Internet infrastructure, increases in wages and old-age poverty. All these issues have featured prominently in the news in recent months.

Getting with the People

But Steinbrück also doesn't want to come across as being too stodgy. This week, Steinbrück even visited a student flatshare in Berlin. He wore a polo shirt, sprawled out on a sofa and sipped beer with the college students, with reporters from the city's tabloid newspapers in tow. On Tuesday, Steinbrück said he had been pleased that the students used channels like Twitter and Instagram to highlight his visit.

Tuesday's SPD press conference also made clear that the party is adopting negative campaigning as a key strategy and plans to go on the offensive against incumbent Merkel. Steinbrück ridiculed Merkel's pledge to introduce limits on rent increases, saying the chancellor discovered the pet issue four years after the SPD had announced its own similar policy. When it comes to political policies, Steinbrück said, Merkel's government -- a coalition of her conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party -- had a talent for producing "empty bottles with attractive labels."

That kind of frontal attack can also be seen in the SPD's campaign posters, two of which feature the image of Chancellor Merkel.

One features Merkel leaning over and shuffling through the contents of her handbag. It reads: "Privacy -- uncharted territory for Merkel," a jab at Merkel's much-maligned early response to the NSA spying scandal given during US President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin in June. At a joint press conference, Merkel described the Internet as "uncharted territory."

Another campaign posters shows Merkel together with her chief of staff Ronald Pofalla and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière (both also members of her CDU) with the question, "Merkel's expert team?" Pofalla, as chief of staff and head of the Chancellery, is also the German government's coordinator for intelligence matters, and currently faces difficult questions about cooperation between the country's intelligence agencies and the NSA, which SPIEGEL recently reported conducts surveillance on up to a half-billion communications connections in Germany each month. De Maizière, meanwhile, is under fire for delays and cost overruns on major military procurement projects including a drone that had to be abandoned at a cost of more than €500 million to German taxpayers.

Still, the very fact that the SPD, which is traditionally one of Germany's two main political parties, believes it will have better prospects by focusing on the competition's weaknesses rather than the strengths of its own candidate is a telling sign of the party's diminished standing.

SPD to Visit 5 Million Households

Steinbrück is now seeking to position himself as a more approachable candidate. He's embarking on his "Straight Talk" tour of the country to engage in a direct discussion with the public. The SPD lost half of its voter base between 1998 and 2009, with the rise of the Left Party, which stole many of its left-wing voters after former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine abandoned the party, and increased support for the Green Party. This year, it is putting all of its resources into winning voters back. An army of campaign volunteers plan to visit an astounding 5 million households across the country between now and election day in an effort to persuade undecided voters.

The SPD candidate says his campaign schedule is so packed that he won't even have time for exercise between now and September. The best he can hope for is that sleep and good food will counter the stress of a brutal campaign regiment.

Despite valiant efforts, though, it may be difficult for the SPD to overcome its greatest challenge -- that of differentiating itself from Merkel and her conservatives. The problem is that Merkel has already stolen many of the SPD's core issues right out from underneath the party. Be it child care, rent control, dialogue with the citizens or the euro crisis, Merkel's positions do not differ significantly from those of the SPD -- and this has not been lost on voters.

The only issue where the SPD is in a strong position to attack has been on the NSA scandal, but even there voters simply aren't biting. The SPD is failing to catch up to Merkel's conservatives in the polls. So Steinbrück tried to do a little of everything on Tuesday. The campaign posters are also indicative of that.

Closing his presser on Tuesday, Steinbrück had a few thoughtful words for his colleague Matthias Platzeck, the governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg who announced he would step down from office after suffering a minor stroke. "Decisions like that are very personal ones," Steinbrück said. "But there is life after politics."

That idea might provide some consolation for the SPD chancellor candidate as well: Life still continues after the campaign.

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