SPIEGEL Interview with SPD Chancellor Candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier A CDU-FDP Government Would Be 'A Threat to Stability in Germany'
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 53, the center-left Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, talks with SPIEGEL about his relationship with the Left Party, his predictions for the outcome of the Sept. 27 election and the dangers of a possible CDU-FDP government.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Steinmeier, be honest: Anyone who votes for the Social Democratic Party in the next election on Sept. 27 could end up getting a so-called "red-red-green" government, consisting of your party in coalition with the Greens and the left-wing Left Party, in the next legislative period. Right?
SPIEGEL: But you are certainly going to end up changing your position.
Steinmeier: You have a rather fertile imagination. You know me. You're going to have to look for someone else to address your accusations to. My position is clear: We are fighting for a strong SPD. Even if a coalition partner is necessary, we will not join forces with the Left Party.
SPIEGEL: Does that apply to the whole legislative period?
Steinmeier: That applies to the entire legislative period.
SPIEGEL: Roland Koch of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union claims you lack credibility. He says that the SPD has an "Ypsilanti gene," in a reference to the former head of the SPD in the state of Hesse, Andrea Ypsilanti, who reneged on an election promise not to work with the Left Party. In the end you would throw your lot in with the Left Party despite your promises not to, he claims. How much Ypsilanti is there in you?
Steinmeier: The SPD needs no lectures on credibility from Mr. Koch. Obviously, some of the CDU's party strategists are nervous after the state elections on Aug. 30. They're trying a new version of the "red socks" campaign in order to pick a fight. (Ed's note: The CDU's "red socks" campaign during the 1994 Bundestag election campaign warned against an SPD coalition with the PDS, one of the parties that later merged to create the Left Party.) It will not work. I'll say it loud and clear -- there will be no cooperation with the Left Party on my watch.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, there is apparently a secret longing for a "red-red" coalition in your party. The SPD leftist Ottmar Schreiner has said he can imagine such a coalition even on the national level. What are you planning to do about such sentiments?
Steinmeier: Our election platform provides information about our policies and also about possible coalitions after the election. It specifically rules out a coalition with the Left Party. Everyone in my party has supported this.
SPIEGEL: After the state elections in Saarland and Thuringia, it was obvious that red-red is a real option for the SPD in Germany's states if it wants to govern. But allegedly you do not want an SPD-Left Party coalition on the national level. Do you really expect people to believe that?
Steinmeier: In the last four years, the Left Party has shown itself to be irresponsible in terms of foreign policy. In addition, it acts in a decidedly anti-European manner. This is an attitude that does not carry any weight at the state level, because other issues are relevant there. In this respect, the distinction between the state level and the national level is well founded.
SPIEGEL: Do you see eye-to-eye on social policy?
Steinmeier: I have mentioned reasons which rule out a coalition with the Left Party. They are so clear that I don't need to review other policy areas in detail.
SPIEGEL: So you have fewer problems with each other with regard to social policy?
Steinmeier: You clearly have a totally incorrect impression. I think it is wrong for the Left Party to demand that we roll back everything that has led us out of the crisis and reduced unemployment. We must not pretend that we can come out of the crisis only by increasing social spending.
SPIEGEL: One thing's for sure -- the Left Party is cutting the ground from under your feet. The SPD shrank again by six percentage points in Saarland; in Saxony, it is no longer in power; in Thuringia, it is in third place -- and you talk of a "tailwind" for your party. How can you say that?
Steinmeier: But the state elections have altered the political landscape. Until recently, most political observers wanted to believe that the (Bundestag) election had already been decided and that a "black-yellow" coalition (Ed.'s note: A coalition of the conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, named for their official colors) was already a sure thing. If my observations are not entirely wrong, this has been duly corrected.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Steinmeier: The CDU has seen double-digit losses in two states, their absolute majorities are gone, and in Thuringia, even the state governor (Dieter Althaus) has now resigned. At the same time, the SPD has moved into a strategic situation in these states. No government can be formed against us. So you see there is indeed a tailwind for the SPD when it comes to the national elections.
SPIEGEL: But the situation in Thuringia is rather odd -- the SPD is only in third place, but it has aspirations to the post of state governor in a red-red-green coalition. This defies all conventions.
Steinmeier: First, contrary to popular belief, it is not without precedent. Otherwise, there would never have been an FDP governor, but there was. And secondly, even if it is unusual, it is not illegitimate in a democracy. That is something that the parties must now negotiate with one another.
SPIEGEL: In Saarland, the Left Party is now on the verge of forming part of a government in a western German state for the first time. This is a turning point. Your strongest competitor, which was long a pariah in German politics because of its links to the East German Communist party, is gradually becoming socially acceptable.
Steinmeier: The Saarland result has a lot to do with (Left Party co-chairman) Oskar Lafontaine, who served as state governor there for 13 years. He was a household name among Saarlanders. I don't see that as evidence of a sustainable upward trend for the Left Party. On the contrary, I believe that the Left Party is past its prime. They won't be celebrating for much longer.
SPIEGEL: What do you have against Oskar Lafontaine?
Steinmeier: Oskar Lafontaine was the SPD party chairman, and in those years, he managed the party with quite a strong hand. But then he simply relinquished responsibility in a situation in which he was required to act. This is behavior that doesn't recommend him for responsible positions in politics. I consider him to be unfit for a government post.
SPIEGEL: Is red-red-green an option in the 2013 election if Lafontaine is no longer there?
Steinmeier: We are now talking about the Sept. 27 election and about possible coalitions afterwards. I am not concerned with whether the Left Party will change in the next few years or whether it will change at all. I'll say it again -- this party is past its prime.
SPIEGEL: Is a merger between the two parties conceivable?
Steinmeier: A typical journalist's question, far removed from reality. A merger is out of the question for the foreseeable future.
SPIEGEL: Another conceivable coalition scenario for the federal election is a so-called "traffic-light" coalition of the SPD, FDP and the Greens. However, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle does not want to govern with you under any circumstances. Are you disappointed?
Steinmeier: I'm not at all worried. I still consider such a constellation to be conceivable. I am in favor of first letting the voters decide.
SPIEGEL: Have you talked with Westerwelle about it?
Steinmeier: I talk with Mr. Westerwelle willingly and often.
SPIEGEL: What makes you so sure that he will not completely abandon this option?
Steinmeier: The FDP wants to govern with the CDU. But (their share of the vote) will not be enough for that on Sept. 27. The FDP will therefore have to think about what role they want to play in Germany's political system -- opposition or government. I cannot and do not want to influence this.
SPIEGEL: The traffic light coalition is unpopular with voters.
Steinmeier: You already know that for a fact?
SPIEGEL: There are polls.
Steinmeier: In the polls that I know, (fictitious chancellor candidate) Horst Schlämmer is also ahead of (his creator) Hape Kerkeling.
SPIEGEL: In your campaign speeches, you claim that liberalism is partly responsible for the financial crisis, the same liberalism that the FDP stands for. Now you want to solve the financial crisis with these people. How does that fit together?
Steinmeier: We need clear answers to solve the financial crisis. Only those who are willing to draw lessons from the crisis and talk about the causes will be able to help us overcome them. This is especially true for anyone who wants to be involved in a future government, and therefore it also true for the FDP. Insight and reason are the most important things for me in that respect.
SPIEGEL: The worst case scenario for you would be for CDU and FDP to win on election night. Would you then become the leader of the opposition?
Steinmeier: Now you're getting it at last -- "black-yellow" will have no majority. I'm running as the SPD's leading candidate, and I'm running for chancellor. I never let myself be confused by polls. The (Aug. 30) elections have shown this to be true. Something is happening in Germany -- 60 percent of people think the election result is still open. Millions of citizens have not yet decided whether they will vote, and if they do, for whom. I want to convince them and win them for the SPD.
SPIEGEL: More than half of all Germans will be governed on the state level by "black-yellow" governments. Do you think people will believe your horror scenarios about the Christian Democrats and the FDP?
Steinmeier: Why do you say horror scenarios? I only need look at the plans that have recently been leaked out from Mr. Guttenberg's Economics Ministry. They make it clear what the CDU has got planned for after the election. It's the old neo-liberal song-and-dance -- reducing workers' rights, lowering taxes for the rich, fighting against minimum wage, restrictions on employees' protection against dismissal, etc., etc.
SPIEGEL: Guttenberg has distanced himself from the paper.
Steinmeier: They let the paper become public to see what sort of reaction it would cause. When the reaction showed that the plans are not as welcome as Guttenberg had hoped, they made great efforts to dissociate themselves from (the plans). But they did not succeed. The distancing attempt is not credible.
SPIEGEL: These days you are repeatedly saying that Chancellor Angela Merkel is an uninspired and weak leader. And now she is suddenly supposed to have the courage to implement major, painful reforms in this country? Which do you really mean?
Steinmeier: As it happens, I really think that what we have seen over the last 10 months is characteristically lacking in ambition. I've really seen it up close. I was annoyed, for example, that the chancellor recently said that she believes it is right to limit executive pay. It's easy for Ms Merkel to say these things, but when she was in the position to take concrete action in Germany, she chickened out. In February, the CDU, with her support, voted against a proposal to limit severance pay to three times the basic salary.
SPIEGEL: Has the issue of the financial markets been resolved?
Steinmeier: Absolutely not. This kind of crisis cannot be allowed to happen again. We need radical action and clear rules. First and foremost, how do we ensure that the burden of the crisis is distributed fairly? It cannot be the case that the general public foots the bill for the mistakes of the financial sector. No society can put up with that. At the upcoming G-20 meeting, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück will therefore try to achieve a common understanding that the financial sector must contribute much more to cover the losses than had been previously envisioned.
SPIEGEL: Do you trust Merkel to carry out major reforms?
Steinmeier: In a CDU-FDP government, Ms Merkel will have no choice. The business lobby and their political representatives in a black-yellow government will demand a decidedly neo-liberal course. I am sure that a CDU-FDP government would open up fundamental social conflicts in our society once again. A Merkel/Westerwelle government would divide our society. That is a threat to stability in our country.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that the chancellor does not care about unemployment figures? That is what your party chief Franz Müntefering said.
Steinmeier: Anyone who says that full employment is impossible really does lack ambition. Personally, I for one say that we must never give up the goal of overcoming mass unemployment.
SPIEGEL: Merkel, in turn, criticizes you for weak leadership. She says that she does not know who has the final say in the SPD. Have you finally lured her into taking part in the election campaign?
Steinmeier: I have the impression that Ms Merkel is still thinking. For the time being, we are alone on the stage. Ms Merkel wants to fob the populace off with pretty pictures and only reveal her true intentions after Sept. 27. Whatever. I say that efforts at concealment will be punished. (Saarland Governor) Peter Müller and (former Thuringia Governor) Dieter Althaus tried this strategy and they crashed and burned. Voters simply won't allow themselves to be taken for a ride.
SPIEGEL: In the end, could it happen that after Sept. 27, you will once again find yourself in a "grand coalition" of the CDU and the SPD? You are regarded as a secret fan of the grand coalition. Is that true?
Steinmeier: Who has been telling you this stuff yet again? It's good for democracy that grand coalitions remain the exception. Long-standing grand coalitions naturally pose the risk that the fringe, the extremists, will gain strength. That's another reason why the repeat of a grand coalition should not be the goal of politics.
SPIEGEL: Could the SPD endure another four years of the grand coalition?
Steinmeier: The question is not what one can endure, but what one is aiming at. I do not want a continuation of the grand coalition. Four years are enough.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Steinmeier, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Dirk Kurbjuweit and Roland Nelles.