Steinmeier’s uphill battle to oust “Angie”

April 20, 2009

If keeping his fractured party together was the main goal, Frank-Walter Steinmeier passed his first big test as the German Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor with flying colours.

   Unveiling the SPD’s election campaign programme at a party conference on Sunday, Steinmeier (who is also Germany’s foreign minister) tried hard to satisfy everyone gathered at the Berlin Tempodrom – and by and large succeeded.

   For the restless left-wing of the party, there were promises to tilt tax rates in favour of low earners, plans for a new levy on stock market transactions and calls for a 7.50 euro minimum wage for all German workers.

   Party centrists, on the other hand, could take comfort in Steinmeier’s decision to veto a new wealth tax that SPD leftists had been pushing for.

   To ensure everyone was on board, Steinmeier even alluded to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s opposition to the Iraq war – a policy that may have limited appeal these days, but happens to be one of the few everyone in the SPD can agree on.

   By settling on a campaign platform that doesn’t open up new divisions within his party, Steinmeier has given the SPD a fighting chance against popular Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservatives are struggling to put together a convincing policy programme of their own.

   But for a number of reasons, Steinmeier and the SPD face an uphill battle less than six months before Germany holds its federal election.

   First, because the party has gone out of its way to appeal to its many competing factions, its programme can be criticised for lacking substance.

   The party’s plan to raise the top tax rate to 47 from 45 percent and invest the extra proceeds in education is a prime example. Steinmeier himself said on Sunday the measure would affect only 1.5 percent of German taxpayers, raising questions about just how much additional revenue it would generate. Conspicuously absent from the SPD election promises were hard figures detailing how much they would cost and how they would be paid for.

   Steinmeier also failed to allay fears within the SPD about his readiness for the looming election campaign. His hour-long speech had none of the fighting spirit or inspirational verve that his mentor Schroeder regularly conjured up.

   Steinmeier even felt the need to reassure the party faithful of his desire for the top job: “I want to be chancellor. That is why I am here,” he said, as if to remind himself.

   Perhaps the biggest dilemma for the SPD, however, is how to win over voters who see little difference between Steinmeier’s party and Merkel’s increasingly left-leaning conservatives. In the midst of Germany’s worst post-war economic crisis, the SPD candidate still has to convince the electorate why they should switch leaders.
















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