The SPD's Candidate for Chancellor Does Steinmeier Have What it Takes?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been a safe pair of hands as German foreign minister, but his Social Democrat party is taking a risk by nominating him as its candidate for chancellor in the 2009 election. There are doubts whether this unemotional, cautious man can rally his deeply divided party and win an election.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

Anyone who knows how hesitant Frank-Walter Steinmeier can be knows how difficult it must have been for him to seize his party's nomination for the chancellorship. But seize it he did. The great procrastinator Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the candidate of the Social Democrat Party. It took a bit of nudging, but in the end he took the decision more quickly than anyone had expected.

The world of German politics has changed overnight. From now on, no major decision can be taken by the party without his approval. What policy proposals will the SPD make? What direction will its social policy take? And, most important at this point, how will the SPD deal with the Left Party? 

Chancellor Angela Merkel now knows the identity of her challenger for the 2009 general election -- her own foreign minister. Steinmeier's nomination comes no surprise, but the decision does change their relationship. He has now declared officially that he wants her job. She will defend her job, and so begins a duel between two political rivals who aren't that different from each other.

The big question is: Can Frank-Walter Steinmeier do this job? Can he get a good election result for the SPD? Would he make a good chancellor?

There are many in the party who think he could. His former regional party association in the Lower Saxony along with many on the right wing of the SPD wanted him to go for the nomination. Former SPD chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder had urged him to show that he wanted to take power. He himself had to reach out for the nomination rather than being handed it by Kurt Beck, the SPD leader who quit on Sunday. 

But there are doubts about whether Steinmeier and the SPD really fit together, whether he's the right candidate for the party in its current state. Steinmeier spent 14 years as a behind-the-scenes bureaucrat at Schröder's side, first as his spokesman and then as his chief of staff when Schröder was governor of Lower Saxony. When he became chancellor in 1998, Steinmeier became his chief of staff in Berlin.

Architect of Unpopular Welfare Cuts

His career development at Schröder's side gave Steinmeier much valuable experience. But it's also a burden, because the party he is now supposed to lead to victory has strong misgivings about his resume.

Steinmeier was a co-architect of the so-called Agenda 2010, a package of big welfare cuts introduced in 2003 that has been blamed for the party's subsequent deep division, string of election losses and current crisis. 

Steinmeier's association with Agenda 2010 will continue to haunt him. It was Steinmeier as Schröder's behind-the-scenes fixer who shaped the March 2003 government statement announcing the reforms. Steinmeier turned Schröder's speech into a dry, bureaucratic-sounding catalogue of painful measures devoid of any Social Democrat sentiment.

Ever since then, Steinmeier has the reputation in the SPD as not being sensitive enough to the feelings of the party which is still fiercely proud of its roots in Germany's 19th-century labor movement.

The SPD now has a candidate. But it remains totally unclear whether Steinmeier as architect of the Agenda 2010 will be able to rally the SPD around his reform policy. Or will he end up as little more than the puppet of a party that is utterly sick of reforms?

He must now give the strong left wing of the party the feeling that its wishes are respected while at the same time pursuing his own vision of a modern society equipped to cope with the economic rigors of globalization. His goal is a reform that follows on from Agenda 2010.

He wants to position the SPD as pro-economy, reform-oriented force in the political middle ground. Social issues are important to him but he doesn't want them to play as strong a role in the party as they have in recent months. Only last week, 60 SPD members of parliament and trade unionists presented a list of demands calling for the party to abandon its reform agenda, reverse the decision to raise the retirement age to 67 and boost public sector job creation.

Doubts About His Suitability

No one knows whether Steinmeier has the tenacity, authority and determination to get his own way in this bitterly divided party, which is mired at record lows in opinion polls. The way in which he attained the nomination gives reason for doubt. Never before in Germany did a politician have to do so little to attain such an important candidacy. Never before did a politician have to take so little risk.

Ambition sparkled in Gerhard Schröder's eyes day and night. As a young MP, the former chancellor once famously rattled at the gates of the chancellery shouting "I want to get in here!" So far, nothing much has sparkled in Sterinmeier's eyes. And he would never have rattled at that gate.

Steinmeier owes his nomination mainly to the fact that he hasn't made any big mistakes. That in itself is sufficient qualification given the parlous state of the party these days. But is it enough to live up to the expectations now placed on him?

There are more questions than answers when it comes to Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Germans like him, according to recent opinion polls showing he is more popular even than Merkel.

But the Germans hardly know this man. To them, Steinmeier has until now just been the man who talks about the problems of the world on the TV news. He's usually seen standing in crisis regions, in Damascus, Beirut or Ramallah, staring into the cameras with a serious look on his face, urging caution and "diplomatic efforts." His underlying message is always: keep a cool head, don't rush into anything. It's also the motto of his life.

Boring but Safe

The Steinmeier people saw on TV was terribly boring, but that was perfect because he had the right face for the international crises. In times of crisis people tend to put their faith in boring leaders.

But do they also want such a man to be their chancellor?

Anyone who has ever sat on the black leather sofa in Steinmeier's office at the Foreign Ministry knows how tiring he can be, how carefully he expresses his sentences, driven by the fear of saying the wrong thing. The words fall from his mouth like heavy boulders. Sometimes the pauses between his sentences are so long that one almost thinks he's nodded off.

At times like these one finds oneself wondering whether Steinmeier can rally his party, let along the country behind his mission. Does he even have a mission? In what direction does he want to take Germany? And where does this man, who lives in the exclusive Berlin district of Zehlendorf with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, come from?

Rags to Riches

Steinmeier grew up in north-western Germany in the village of Brakelsiek, population 1,000, with a football pitch, petrol station and two pubs that both serve schnitzel.

There are worse places, but Steinmeier described it as a vale of tears during a recent speech before students in Berlin. He said he grew up in "the poor corner of North Rhine-Westphalia" and that his father, a carpenter, was "determined that his son should have a better life than he did." Being a carpenter's son from Brakelsiek "isn't a standard resume for a foreign minister," he declared, hammering home his Social Democratic rags-to-riches fairytale.

But Frank-Walter Steinmeier's story isn't one of working class poverty. His father always had job. The family owned its own home, idyllically located at the edge of the village. Frank-Walter grew up in moderate affluence acquired through work. There was no deprivation. His mother Ursula, 78, recalls a childhood of security and friendship. In all those years did she ever have an inkling that Frank-Walter had big plans? Any burning desire for power? Influence? Fame?

She thinks for a while. "No," says Ursula Steinmeier.

Steinmeier played for his local football team TuS 08 Brakelsiek, where team mates described him as a reliable defender.

When Steinmeier had got his high school diploma and done his military service, he thought about career options. At first he considered becoming a sports reporter, then an architect. In the end he decided to study public law at Giessen University, for "breadwinning reasons," as he says. Even in those days he took the safe choice.

At age 35 he got his doctorate with a dissertation on homelessness that his tutor Brun-Otto Bryde describes as "brilliant." He almost convinced Steinmeier to remain in academia. But Steinmeier decided to join Schröder instead.

Darker Side

Steinmeier was an efficient bureaucrat, managing to keep Schröder's at times chaotic coalition of Social Democrats and Greens workable.

But he also revealed a different, darker side during his time as Schröder's chief of staff in Berlin, when he was chief supervisor of Germany's intelligence agencies.

A parliamentary committee that has spent the last two years exploring the role of the agencies in the fight against terrorism has pieced together a picture of Steinmeier as a technocrat who stuck to the letter of the law when human compassion would have been appropriate. As a man so caught up in rules and regulations that he lost sight of a human's fate.

Driven by fear of making a mistake, he did not seize opportunities to help a torture victim like Murat Kurnaz,  a Turkish citizen born in Germany, get out of the hell of Guantanamo. Steinmeier rejected a US offer for Kurnaz to return to Germany. He didn't want to risk being accused later of letting a potential threat into the country. Had he agreed, Kurnaz would probably have had a better chance of being released early.

Steinmeier is a pragmatist, someone who doesn't divide the world in left and right. He isn't keen on grand promises, visions or plans. Someone like that can count reliability and determination among his strengths. But he can't whip up much enthusiasm or electrify people.

Until now, he hasn't had to. He has never been elected to any of his jobs. He managed to avoid the tough climb through the party hierarchy that other top politicians have to go through. Many in his party are wondering if he'll be any good at campaigning.

Doing His Campaign Homework

But Steinmeier, meticulous as ever, has been doing his homework. He has been quietly honing stump speeches at small party rallies far away from the Berlin limelight.

One of these dry runs took place in August in North Rhine-Westphalia. At 4.45 p.m. Steinmeier held a speech before the workforce of engineering company Siemens in the industrial town of Mülheim on the Ruhr.

The tired workers couldn't believe their eyes. The man they were used to seeing murmuring dry sentences into television cameras was suddenly dancing like a whirling dervish on the podium in front of them, his white hair waving around to the rhythm of his excited gestures.

He was practising his campaign style, roaring like a lion, clenching his fists every bit as tightly as master campaigner Schröder used to, and even matching the hoarse yelling of his mentor. He railed against "losers in pin stripe suits" and talked about "ice floes of society" gradually drifting apart.

After that performance Steinmeier looked pleased with himself. It was as if he'd discovered a new, emotional side to himself. Campaigning is fun, he declared with a note of surprise and asked his staff if there were any more such events coming up.