Merkel in trouble, gambles with new ‘swing vote’ spokesman
Angela Merkel has come up with a risky – but intriguing – choice for one of the most-talked-about and closely scrutinised jobs in Germany: her spokesman.
The German chancellor is not normally known for rolling the dice with her decisions. Cautious to a fault, Merkel tends to seek consensus and the “safe road” with just about every decision she makes – whether that angers France when she first drags her feet on whether to push ahead aggressively with economic stimulus measures during the 2008 crisis or annoys Greece in early 2010 when it badly needed cash or at least strong words of support.
But Merkel has suddenly picked a complete outsider to try explain her government’s policies, an eye-raising choice of that may come back to haunt her. German government spokesmen have an incredibly high public profile and appear in public almost daily explaining what Merkel and her ministers are trying to do. She will surely be hoping “Seibert’s smile will help get rid of Merkel’s woes” as Bild newspaper wrote
Merkel, whose popularity has plunged since winning the 2009 election, clearly savours surprising the self-proclaimed experts inside Berlin’s Autobahnring (beltway) with an unorthodox move now and then. And that seems to be an overriding motive in picking TV news anchor Steffen Seibert as her new spokesman. He will replace Ulrich Wilhelm, her able and eloquent spokesman of the last five years who is headed for a top TV executive job in Bavaria.
“It definitely pleased the chancellor that no one was expecting Steffen Seibert to be picked,” wrote Bild newspaper columnist Hugo Mueller-Vogg. “The rumour mill in Berlin had just about every name on the list of candidates except his.”
Seibert is known to millions of TV viewers in Germany, a clean-cut man who reads the news each night with a sober voice and pretty face. (“I’ve got a pretty mother and I inherited her genes,” Seibert said once when asked about his good looks). And he has worked for his ZDF public broadcasting network abroad.
But Seibert has been based in the small and sleepy western town of Mainz and never worked in Berlin, which can be a treacherous place for novices even in the best of times. And with Merkel’s government tumbling from one new low to the next, this is hardly the best of times for a beginner.
“He’s never experienced the political world in Berlin,” said Bela Anda, a former newspaper reporter who was Chancellor Gerhard Gerhard’s spokesman from 1998 to 2005. “He’s going to find out soon enough that Berlin is not Mainz.”
Complicating the pick of the 50-year-old news anchor from Mainz, Seibert does not seem to be particularly loyal to Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). He has said in interviews that he has voted for just about every party in parliament – the CDU, the Free Democrats but also the centre-left Social Democrats and the pro-environment Greens. He has been quoted saying that he thinks a CDU/CSU-Greens government would be “an exciting option” – though it has never happened before and is not likely to happen anytime soon.
That comment will likely not endear him to the FDP, Merkel’s junior coalition partners and the arch enemy of the Greens.
“I guess I’m what you’d call a notorious swing voter,” Seibert said.