The World from Berlin: 'Europe Will Be Central to the German Campaign'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may not be showing concern, but most agree that the Social Democrats have managed to find a potentially dangerous candidate to run against her in next year's general elections. Still, Peer Steinbrück is far from a perfect candidate, German editorialists say on Monday.

Peer Steinbrück was confirmed as the SPD chancellor candidate on Monday. Zoom
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Peer Steinbrück was confirmed as the SPD chancellor candidate on Monday.

The timing was not everything the German Social Democrats had hoped for. Originally, the center-left party had intended to announce its candidate for chancellor in November, or maybe even later. But with two of the original "troika" of possible candidates tiring of maintaining the fiction that a decision had not yet been made, news leaked out last Friday that former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück was the last man standing, confirmed by a press conference on Friday afternoon. On Monday, party head Sigmar Gabriel officially proposed to party leaders that Steinbrück be the SPD challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in general elections next autumn. He was approved unanimously.

Even outside the SPD, there is broad consensus that Steinbrück is the best man for the job. He commands nationwide respect for his steady hand as head of the Finance Ministry during the darkest days of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and is widely credited with helping Germany avoid serious repercussions from the economic downturn that followed. Though he hasn't held a significant political office since the SPD was voted out of government in the 2009 general elections, he still holds a seat in parliament and has remained in the public eye.

Most recently, attention has focused on his plan for banking and financial sector reform, parts of which were praised over the weekend by former Deutsche Bank head Josef Ackermann. Specifically, Ackermann seconded Steinbrück's demand for a fund, bankrolled by banks themselves, for bailing out large financial institutions should they run into trouble.

Far from Perfect

Steinbrück also proposed in the report, commissioned by SPD leaders, that investment banking be split off from retail banking. The report was widely seen as an SPD effort to emphasize a greater willingness to pursue banking reform than Merkel has shown.

Despite the report, combined with other indications that the SPD was leaning strongly toward choosing Steinbrück to lead the party into the campaign, he, Gabriel and the third member of the troika, former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, continued to insist until well into last week that no decision had yet been made. Gabriel, though, had quietly bowed out of the running several months ago and Steinmeier had likewise decided not to run in early September. Finally, last Thursday, Steinmeier told journalists that he had withdrawn his name from consideration, leading to a frantically called press conference on Friday to present Steinbrück as the party's choice to challenge Merkel.

Though he commands respect from the German populace, Steinbrück is far from being a perfect candidate. While he is well liked by the press, he can be abrasive and has shown a propensity for alienating members of his own party. The left wing of the SPD, in particular, is skeptical of Steinbrück. Indeed, one of Steinbrück's greatest challenges will be that of generating enthusiasm for his candidacy within the SPD -- in addition to that of unseating a chancellor who remains immensely popular.

But can he win? German commentators believe that it is possible.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Peer Steinbrück is the best possible SPD candidate for the Chancellery. To be sure, there are those in the party leadership who don't much like him, but that is almost a precondition for an SPD candidate to have a realistic chance to become chancellor. Enough voters who identify themselves as centrist must accept the candidate. The grassroots of both the SPD and the Christian Democrats have shrunken significantly and the differences between the two camps have become diffuse. Swing voters, who sometimes don't vote at all, have become vital. The top candidate must convince voters outside the party who are difficult to mobilize as well as those within the party who aren't enthusiastic about the candidate. Most of all, however, a candidate must exude competence, trust and a desire to lead, particularly when going up against a figure such as Merkel. That has been true of decades and was embodied by former SPD chancellors such as Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. It is also embodied by Peer Steinbrück."

The Financial Times Deutschland runs two editorials on Monday, one pro-Steinbrück and the other contra.

In the commentary in favor of the SPD candidate, the paper writes: "Steinbrück's most important weapon is that he embodies the single most important campaign issue, that of conquering the euro crisis. How can one make banks and the financial sector less susceptible to crisis? To be sure, not all of his bank regulation proposals released last week are new and some, such as increased monitoring of hedge funds, have already been decided. But so what? It is unimportant who was the first, most are just concerned that the right thing is done in the end. Only a small minority of citizens still have a clear overview of the measures that have been employed to save the euro. Most want a leader who ensures that there is no repeat of the financial crisis. Steinbrück could be that leader."

In the commentary opposing to Steinbrück, the paper writes: "Steinbrück is far from being attractive to German voters. He is fond of making others feel inferior, of making it clear that he considers himself to be more intelligent, more important and funnier…. But the times when citizens wanted an über-politician are over…. The goal should not be that of choosing the best campaigner, but that of picking the best potential head of government -- one who can later convince one's own party and coalition partner without alienating them."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Steinbrück is the most dangerous possible SPD candidate for Chancellor Merkel…. He has exactly the right mixture of competence with the issues and rhetorical flourish that will allow him to meet Merkel at eye level from the beginning. It will be a campaign between giants, and one of the more exciting ones in recent years for analysts and citizens alike. But it won't just be exciting. It will be unusual. For the first time, Europe will be the central issue in a German campaign. The choice of Steinbrück … means that the euro and Europe will be a central topic of debate. There is no other politician in Germany who can explain the problems in the international financial sector as competently and convincingly as Steinbrück."

"In the end, we might not just have a new government next September, but also a clarification of our relationship to Europe, a clarification that we haven't managed to produce in the last several years. The citizens of Germany would be the victors."

On Saturday, the financial daily Handelsblatt wrote of Steinbrück:

"Steinbrück's strength is also his weakness: He loves self-aggrandizement and exaggeration. His words can be as sharp as his analysis, his verdicts are often beyond dispute but his rhetoric is often hurtful…. The language he uses demands attention, but it also alienates people, from those in his own party to top managers at Deutsche Bank. It is often anything but statesmanlike."

Conservative daily Die Welt wrote on Saturday:

"Steinbrück … essentially wants the same Germany as Merkel does. Most of his strategic decisions would be the same as hers. During the banking crisis, Steinbrück as finance minister and Merkel as chancellor worked together like political twins…. But whereas Merkel takes few political risks and avoids specifics, Steinbrück will be much more direct. He isn't shy about warning of inflation and has also gone on record predicting that Greece won't be able to borrow money from capital markets for at least the next eight years. That isn't good news. But it is, finally, directness of the kind we have seldom experienced coming from the Chancellery."

"The chancellor is still well ahead of her challenger in surveys. Voters believe in her. But she has never been good at being open and seems even to be afraid of it at times. It took years before she even admitted to her own government that the situation in Afghanistan was indeed a war and that German troops were involved. How long will it be before the chancellor presents a credible invoice for the euro crisis? Merkel will have little choice but to respond to Steinbrück's edgy rhetoric."

-- Charles Hawley

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