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But Thomas Steg’s voluntary departure in Berlin just 2 months and 2 weeks before the federal election has raised more than a few eyebrows — he is not leaving his post as deputy government spokesman to go off and write a book or study horticulture but rather he will be leading the election campaign communications efforts of the man who wants to knock Merkel out of office — SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Steg’s surprise move has shocked and dismayed some in Merkel’s Christian Democrats who fear his inside knowledge of Merkel and her foibles might prove to be dynamite if used by Steinmeier. His Social Democrats trail Merkel’s conservative bloc in opinion polls by more than 10 points ahead of the Sept. 27 election and there is a whiff of desperation in the move. Yet the conservatives are nervous about Steg’s switching sides just as the campaign heats up. “There are some close to Merkel who fear that he could now provide all sorts of confidential information to Steinmeier,” wrote Stern magazine. “Steg knows everything — about the strengths, the weaknesses and the CDU’s election strategy.”
Even though Merkel’s CDU and the SPD have been locked in their awkward grand coalition government since 2005, Steg’s loyalties seemed to lie clearly with Merkel even though he is an SPD member and was first appointed to the job by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2002 after working as his speechwriter. Steg nevertheless proved to be a valuable and faithful spokesman for Merkel, alongside her chief spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.
After his Social Democrats scored their worst-ever result in European elections on Sunday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier might have thought things couldn’t get much worse. But then the man who hopes to beat German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s federal election sat down for a late night television talk show. During the one-hour broadcast, a tense-looking Steinmeier tried to answer the growing number of critics who say he lacks the charisma for the top job — but to many, he only ended up confirming that view.
Breaking from his normally polite, soft-spoken manner, Steinmeier frequently interrupted presenter Anne Will. When Will presented him with a video clip of SPD activists questioning his ability to energise the party, Steinmeier tried to sell his ”seriousness” as a vote-winning virtue. Perhaps the oddest moment came at the very end, when an unemployed man from eastern Germany complained about his struggles to find work. After quizzing the gas fitter about his search, Steinmeier announced that he had “two or three ideas” about jobs in the man’s region and promised to personally take charge of finding him a job. To derisive chuckles, his spokesman was asked at a regular government news conference on Monday whether Germany’s other 3.5 million jobless could count on the SPD candidate to personally sort out their work woes. No, the spokesman said, shifting uneasily in his chair: “The situation yesterday was very special.”
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.
German Chancellor Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier will battle each other in September’s federal election. But on Tuesday, it was hard to imagine the German odd couple campaigning against each other just a few months from now. The leaders of the two rival parties, locked in their loveless grand coalition since 2005, sat next to each other for 90 minutes, smiling politely as they jointly defended a new economic stimulus package their two ruling parties welded together.
“The campaign will start early enough,” said Steinmeier, who also is Germany’s foreign minister. “What we have presented here shows that the parties in this coalition act responsibly.” Merkel, nodding approvingly in response to several of Steinmeier’s “we’re-on-the-same-team” type of answers at the nationally televisioned news conference, added: “This is a good package. Everybody has made their contribution.”
As Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has delivered many speeches, but none that anyone can particularly remember. Germany’s top diplomat has impeccable credentials yet has rarely come close to stirring anyone with his balanced, cautious, usually dry and sometimes rather dull addresses. No one would ever think of ticking the box “rousing speaker” next to his name.
That all changed on Saturday — when Steinmeier gave the speech of his life to a congress of his centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The 500 delegates interrupted the white-haired lawyer’s riveting 88-minute address with applause 114 times. They then elected Steinmeier, who had never won election for any public office, as their candidate for the 2009 election with 95 percent of the vote.
It hasn’t garnered as much attention or generated quite the same excitement as the nomination battle between U.S. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did, but Germany’s Social Democrats are tying themselves in equally torturous knots over who will lead their party into the next election.
Like their U.S. counterparts, the centre-left SPD has two main candidates vying for the right to challenge for the country’s top job. But the similarities between the American and German contests end there.