Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party has always been a party of contradictions. The evening of Sunday's German national election was no exception.
SPD chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has just received the worst result in party history, is standing on a stage at SPD headquarters in the Willy Brandt building in Berlin. It is a bitter moment, for Steinmeier and his party. He is expected to make a statement, but he can't begin yet -- the crowd won't stop cheering for him.
It is a paradoxical moment, but it's Steinmeier's moment. Instead of bemoaning the SPD's election loss, he quickly moves on to asserting his claim to power. The SPD, he says, must reinvent itself -- with him, he is quick to add, as its opposition leader in the German parliament, the Bundestag.
"We have to look forward," Steinmeier calls out to the assembled SPD members. "I intend to be very committed and to fight."
What Steinmeier is saying is that he wants to keep going. But the situation couldn't be more difficult. It doesn't take a psychic to predict that the party faces tough times ahead.
After seeing its share of the vote drop by 11 percentage points, the SPD will have to take a long hard look at itself. Members of its left wing are already calling for a "reorientation of the party, both strategically and in terms of content." They will urge party leaders to further open up the party for coalitions with the far-left Left Party -- formerly something of a pariah in German politics due to its links to the Communist party of East Germany -- on the national level. Following alliances between the two parties in German states, the so-called "red-red" option on the national level is becoming more and more likely.
Steinmeier will have to accept this, or others will embark on this path without him: Andrea Nahles, for example, a young and influential leftist within the SPD, or Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who has already entered into a coalition with the Left Party in the Berlin state assembly.
A Prussian at Heart
Steinmeier may come from the Lippe region in northwest Germany, but he is an efficient Prussian at heart. When he takes on a task, he completes it to the best of his ability -- something that was also true during the election campaign.
Although Steinmeier, a lawyer by training and a senior government official for many years, has never been considered a great speaker, he hogged the limelight during the campaign. On market squares throughout Germany, he sharply criticized Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and, in a booming voice, held his own in the face of poor poll results.
He demonstrated that he has strong nerves, even remaining composed when the SPD's polling numbers plummeted. He gave a confident performance in a Sept. 13 television debate against Chancellor Angela Merkel, prompting his 13-year-old daughter to congratulate him by text message after the debate: "Good, Dad." Most viewers also felt that he outperformed the chancellor.
Steinmeier is a political professional, which speaks in his favor. The SPD has few such politicians left in its ranks. He knows a lot, is diligent and can think strategically. His nickname, fittingly enough, is: "His Efficiency."
It's a name that also reflects his management style. Steinmeier is not given to rash behavior. Instead, he is thoughtful and he surrounds himself with many advisers. He makes decisions only after careful consideration.
Taking the Credit
In the "grand coalition" government of the CDU and SPD which has governed Germany for the last four years, he tried to create the impression that he, rather than Merkel, was really the unofficial boss. He wanted to be the one to present a plan for everything, to point Merkel in the right direction and to convince people through actions rather than words.
The bailout of the troubled German carmaker Opel, the "cash-for-clunkers" scrapping premium to boost new car sales, the major economic stimulus program to combat the financial crisis -- much of what was undertaken by the government in recent months emerged primarily from Steinmeier's think tank in the Foreign Ministry. But, as often happens in a coalition, the chancellor was pleased to take up his proposals and ultimately claim credit for them.
This enraged Steinmeier -- to the extent that rage is possible, given his mild temperament. Merkel, he said angrily, is a "me-too chancellor." But his criticism was of little use, as Merkel routinely discussed her successes on evening television programs. Her approval ratings went up, while Steinmeier and the SPD remained in a distant second place in the opinion polls. He learned the painful lesson of what it means to play the role of junior partner in an administration. Perhaps he should have risked, at least once, a major confrontation with Merkel. But he shied away from that. As a result, although he managed to rise to the level of master within the SPD, he remained nothing but a servant in the coalition.
Steinmeier also has his disadvantages. He is often too defensive, too hesitant and simply too decent. He is not good at the kind of sharp and snappy attack which mobilizes supporters -- and which an opposition leader needs to be able to do. In the German parliament, the Bundestag, he will now compete head-on with orators like top Left Party politicians Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi. Steinmeier's adversaries within the SPD will also pay close attention to the competition for the position of leader of the opposition.
The SPD could probably have done better in the election. It has the potential. In the last parliamentary election, 16 million Germans voted for the SPD. This time only 10 million voted for the party. With Steinmeier as chancellor candidate, the much-touted mobilization of SPD voters was only a moderate success.
Of course, he could have used the subject of Afghanistan offensively, as many of his fellow party members advised him to do. He could have transformed himself from a vehement supporter of the mission into an advocate of speedy withdrawal. He could have attempted to animate the pacifist soul of the SPD. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder smoothed the way for Steinmeier to take this approach when, shortly before the election, he called for the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan by 2015. This may have been a subject the candidate could have used to mobilize voters. But he wasn't interested.
"It wouldn't be credible if I were to change my position now," he said. He did allow a document to be leaked from the Foreign Ministry in which officials openly discussed a timetable for withdrawal. But that was the extent of it. He did not name a concrete withdrawal date. He simply refused to take the issue any further.
The Curse of Schröder
Anyone who wants to figure out what makes Steinmeier tick cannot regard him in isolation. Instead, it is important to examine the people who have played an important role in shaping his political life in years past.
First, there is Schröder, his political mentor. The close connection to Schröder is both a blessing and a curse for Steinmeier.
On the one hand, he owes his rise to political prominence to the former chancellor. During his time as governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony, Schröder promoted Steinmeier from the position of media policy consultant to director of his state chancellery. Schröder recognized Steinmeier's potential, his diligence, his intelligence and his ambition. He became the most important member of Schröder's staff and a friend.
When Schröder was elected chancellor in 1998, he naturally took Steinmeier with him to the then-capital Bonn. In the Chancellery there, Steinmeier was responsible for implementing the projects that Schröder deemed important as chancellor. He negotiated Germany's phase-out of nuclear energy, and he developed the ideas behind the Agenda 2010 package of labor market and social welfare reforms. Nevertheless, he remained a second-tier player.
Then it was Schröder who, after losing the election in 2005, advised the SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering to make Steinmeier foreign minister, a position then-Interior Minister Otto Schily had expected to get. But Schröder, despite his close friendship with both politicians, considered Steinmeier to be the better man for the job. He also wanted to see his legacy preserved in the government and the SPD. And who was better suited to assume that role than Steinmeier?
A Liability for the SPD
But for Steinmeier, his close ties to Schröder also became a burden. To this day, friends and enemies alike associate him with Schröder and his policies. This seems obvious, given the important role Steinmeier played in shaping Schröder's programs.
Steinmeier is a realist. He was the one who, in the winter of 2002/2003, recognized that the government would have to embark on reforms to lead Germany out of the crisis it was in at the time.
What followed was one of the biggest programs of cutbacks in social spending since the founding of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany. Schröder and Steinmeier combined unemployment assistance and welfare. They reduced the duration of unemployment compensation. And they approved billions in investments in education. The reforms moved the country forward, but at the same time Schröder and his deputy were laying the foundation for the Social Democrats' decline.
The Agenda 2010 reforms remain a liability for the SPD today. Many party members believe that it undermines one of the SPD's core principles, namely social justice.
This is a complete misunderstanding. In fact, the Agenda 2010 program not only invigorated the job market, but it also brought more equality to the social welfare state. Thanks to the reforms, hundreds of thousands found new jobs. Social transfers were distributed more equitably. Nevertheless, to this day Steinmeier and his supporters have yet to dispel this misconception. Because of reforms like the deeply unpopular Hartz IV welfare program, the SPD lost 11 elections in succession during Schröder's time in office. The outcome of the 2009 Bundestag election is probably a delayed punishment for Steinmeier for having been, together with Schröder, so bold in the past.
Spurring on the Split
The second man who plays a key role in Steinmeier's life is Oskar Lafontaine.
He is the one who has been spurring on the split in the social democratic movement, putting Steinmeier and the SPD in an increasingly difficult position. On the left, the SPD is under pressure from Lafontaine's Left Party, while the Christian Democrats are challenging it for its voters on the right. Without Lafontaine, without his talent for demagoguery and his uncompromising leftist course, the rise of the Left Party would not have been possible. It offers a safe haven for those who have felt let down by the SPD since Agenda 2010. Without Lafontaine, Steinmeier would probably be in a significantly better position today. And without Lafontaine, the SPD would not be asking itself how it intends to deal with the Left Party in the future.
The third man who deeply shaped Steinmeier's life is Kurt Beck, who was originally slated to lead the SPD into this election. In 2006, when Beck took over the leadership of the SPD following the sudden resignation of Matthias Platzeck, the division of labor between him and Steinmeier was clear: Beck would lead the party, while Steinmeier, as foreign minister and vice-chancellor, would lead the SPD's part of the government. The dual leadership arrangement seemed to work well at first. It was up to Beck, the party chairman, to decide who should run for chancellor. The general consensus within the party was that Beck had the first right of refusal. Steinmeier adhered to this plan, or at least he did not reveal that he was particularly interested in the job.
But then Beck made a serious mistake. In 2007, ignoring the advice of Müntefering and Steinmeier, he made a commitment that the party would not enter into a coalition with the Left Party on the state level in Germany's western states. Beck hoped that this strategy of exclusion would bring the competition to its knees.
But that didn't happen, and the Left Party only became stronger. Most significantly, it cleared the 5 percent hurdle in state elections in Hesse in January 2008, meaning it was entitled to seats in the state assembly. The state leader of the SPD, Andrea Ypsilanti, and Kurt Beck suddenly forgot their old pledge not to cooperate with the Left Party. To bring down the unpopular government of Hesse Governor Roland Koch, a member of Merkel's CDU, Ypsilanti and Beck planned a minority coalition government of the SPD and Green Party -- with the tacit support of the Left Party. Steinmeier was outraged by this breach of promise, but he lacked the power and determination to prevent it from happening. Instead, he watched Beck dig his own grave in the confusion over his breach of promise. In the end, Ypsilanti was forced to resign after a rebellion within the Hesse SPD and new elections were called.
It became clear to everyone that Beck would not be able to assume the candidacy for chancellor. As a result, everything converged on Steinmeier in the end. By that time, it was already assumed that Beck would eventually turn over the candidacy to Steinmeier.
Haunted by Failure
Beck's failure haunts Steinmeier to this day. The chaotic months within the SPD last year, for which Beck and Ypsilanti were responsible, undoubtedly undermined voter confidence in the party's political dependability.
Steinmeier also faced criticism at the time. Hadn't he implicitly promised, a year earlier, that he would be more effective than Beck? But did he live up to this claim? Shortly before the election, Beck himself made the following scathing remark: "I cannot recall that we were at 20 percent (in the polls) back then." It sounded like ridicule, but it was also a concealed threat.
Beck has not forgotten the disgrace of his removal from power at an SPD meeting at Lake Schwielowsee near Berlin in September 2008. As the most experienced SPD governor, he still has considerable influence within the party.
Beck will likely play a key role in determining the SPD's new direction. It is no accident that rising stars in the SPD, like Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel and leftist Andrea Nahles have continued to maintain close contact with Beck in recent months. They hope that he will help them further their careers.
But the most important question is: What will happen to Steinmeier?
It is clear that Steinmeier received strong recognition in the SPD for his commitment in the election campaign. Now those in the party who would like to see him continue to play an important role feel encouraged. The number of Steinmeier's supporters has increased, rather than decreased. Rivals Wowereit, Nahles and Gabriel may be lurking in the wings, but no one in the SPD is interested in a big shake-up at the moment. Rather, most members want continuity, fearing that anything else would deeply divide the party. On Monday, German media reported that Steinmeier is expected to be named as the SPD's new floor leader on Tuesday.
On the other hand, the question of the SPD's possible future coalition partner remains hanging in the air unanswered, although the party will have to answer it sooner or later. Does it want to align itself with Lafontaine's Left Party? Yes or no? Steinmeier has always represented the skeptics and cautionary voices within the party. Will he change his mind?
Steinmeier will have to think about it very carefully. He is probably only interested in cooperating with the Left Party if it embraces a more pragmatic approach. Nevertheless, he cannot rule it out completely. At least for the foreseeable future, the far-left Left Party will probably be his only hope of returning to government.
On Sunday evening, after the election, Steinmeier said little about the SPD's strategic reorientation. But he will determine the SPD's direction as an opposition party. It will move further to the left again. It will wave the flag of social justice, and in doing so will perhaps even make the Left Party redundant. The party has to cling to that hope, at least.
One thing is certain: Angela Merkel will get to know a different Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the coming years, a man who, as opposition leader, intends to make life difficult for her. "The others have the majority," he told his audience at SPD headquarters on election night. "Now it's time for them to show that they can do things better."