Amateur Hour at the SPD: Merkel Challenger Steinbrück Fails to Find His Feet

Germany's Social Democrats had hoped that former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück could topple Chancellor Angela Merkel in this year's elections. But his campaign has thus far been characterized by a series of damaging blunders. Support from within his own party is beginning to crumble. By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: The SPD's Gaffe-Prone Candidate Photos
DPA

He doesn't stride up to the lectern. In fact, he doesn't look at it at all, shunning it as though it were the enemy. Peer Steinbrück sticks one hand into his trouser pocket, shifts his weight back and forth from his left to his right foot, and says: "If I stood behind it, I might make a remark that I would have to take back afterwards."

It's Friday evening, and he is standing in a concert hall in the northern German town of Emden, where he is set to give a stump speech ahead of the Jan. 20 state elections in Lower Saxony. The audience laughs at his remark, knowing full well what he means: Steinbrück has developed a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth. This time, though, his speech came off without any mishaps.

These days, that qualifies as news. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel's respected finance minister in the dark days of the crisis, he has since become the Social Democrats' candidate to dislodge Merkel from the Chancellery in elections this autumn.

"He can do it," former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in October 2011, a quote SPIEGEL used on its cover page at the time. But now one word in that sentence has changed, from "can" to "can't." It's become a real possibility that perhaps the SPD made a mistake when it selected Steinbrück to carry its torch.

Rarely has a candidate gotten off to such a bumpy start, and rarely has a candidate been so controversial within his own ranks as Steinbrück. On the Sunday before last, he managed to make two significant gaffes in one single interview with the Sunday paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. First, he said that he found the chancellor's salary too low, thus creating the impression that he is hoping to improve his own future income. Second, he claimed that current Chancellor Angela Merkel has a "female bonus," even though many women justifiably assume that they are in fact at a disadvantage in professional life.

It was not the first slip-up, and once again SPD members were left shaking their heads in disbelief, as were politicians from the Green Party, the SPD's favored coalition partner. Meanwhile, their political opponents were happily exchanging high-fives.

This week, Steinbrück has found himself in the headlines again. According to the business daily Handelsblatt, Steinbrück, as a member of ThyssenKrupp's supervisory board, offered last January to provide political support should the company launch an initiative aimed at achieving lower electricity prices for industry. Steinbrück was a member of the board from January 2010 until the end of 2012 and was also a member of German parliament during that time.

Days of Peace Are Over

The SPD, not surprisingly, is beginning to wonder whether Steinbrück is the right candidate for the chancellorship. It starts with Chairman Sigmar Gabriel, who was measured in his comments on Steinbrück in a SPIEGEL interview. But in the candidate's own camp, aides have long noticed that what Gabriel is saying off the record isn't nearly as congenial.

So much resentment has built up that some prominent party members are already publicly berating Steinbrück. Erhard Eppler, a former cabinet minister and later a leading thinker in the SPD, says: "The aphorism: 'Becoming chancellor isn't difficult, but being chancellor is,' applies to some politicians. But in the case of Peer Steinbrück, it seems to be the other way around." The left wing of the party, which has long feuded with Steinbrück but had been loyal to him since October, intends to keep a very close eye on him in the future. The days of peace in the SPD are over.

Some members of the Green Party have also had enough. The party's parliamentary group -- the same people with whom Steinbrück hopes to form a coalition government -- has been especially critical. Parliamentarian Ulrich Schneider tweeted his "Wish for 2013: That the SPD quickly realizes that Steinbrück will never become chancellor, and soon stops backing a dead horse!"

Steinbrück has thus far seemed unimpressed by the criticism. He insists on his right to say what he has to say -- though it has begun looking as though he has even greater ambitions, as though he aims to challenge the entire political system. It is generally accepted that the higher a politician rises on the political ladder, the more guarded he or she must be. Steinbrück, however, wants to be able to speak freely. He takes an emotional approach to politics, one that he is determined to preserve, even though it could cost him the candidacy.

The party kept quiet in late 2012, even as the gaffes mounted. Party leaders defended him and the rest merely kept silent. But now that the election year has begun, the SPD's patience has run out. The consternation over his most recent mistake pervades all wings of the party and all SPD state organizations.

Bizarre Behavior

After the interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, hardly any top politician was willing to stand up for Steinbrück, with only General Secretary Andrea Nahles assuming the role of public defender. Even Steinbrück's supporters are speechless about his poor judgment in making such remarks publicly, especially at a time like the Christmas holidays, when there typically isn't much else in the news. "The deliberate traps in this interview should have been recognizable," says Rolf Mützenich, the foreign-policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group.

The left wing of the party is especially disappointed. It has long been irritated by the candidate's bizarre behavior but has said nothing. They are also critical of Steinbrück's seeming unwillingness to further policy demands that are central to the SPD's left, a concern that many had even when the former finance minister was chosen to represent the party. After the interview on the chancellor's salary was published, senior left-wing leaders called each other to discuss their frustrations -- and they decided to break their silence and to publicly criticize Steinbrück.

The group has called a meeting for the beginning of February in Berlin to consider Steinbrück's progress. "I expect that the SPD's message become clear on issues such as the labor market, pensions and on climbing rents," says Jan Stöss, SPD head in the city-state of Berlin.

Steinbrück hadn't expected to be Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger. After he and the SPD were voted out of government in the fall of 2009, he stopped leading a serious political life. He was still a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, but he seemed to devote more of his energy to writing a book and giving speeches, for which he was paid handsomely. He wasn't living the way a high-ranking representative of the SPD should live, but rather the way private citizen Steinbrück prefers to live. Even after receiving Schmidt's endorsement, he didn't shape his life to conform to his ambitions. He was now a gambler who had chosen a high-risk approach.

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Graphic: Plunging support for Peer Steinbrück. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Plunging support for Peer Steinbrück.


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