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.” German media were ruthless in their verdict on the man one newspaper called “Mr Colourless”. “The SPD candidate has rarely looked less confident,” Spiegel magazine said in its online version. Berlin daily Tagesspiegel said: “Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s suffering continues and we suffer with him.” Vice Chancellor in Merkel’s uneasy grand coalition government, Steinmeier has tried over the last few weeks to carve out a new image for himself as a staunch defender of German workers. He pushed aggressively for the government to rescue carmaker Opel, which it did, and backed similar treatment for retail group Arcandor until it became clear that wouldn’t fly. The European vote made clear his party is not winning points on the issue. The SPD scored a record-low 20.8 percent on Sunday, compared to 37.9 percent for Merkel’s conservative bloc.
Traditionally, the election of the German president is a dignified and strictly choreographed event. More than 1,200 parliamentarians and state representatives come together in Berlin’s Reichstag building, they cast a secret vote underneath the assembly’s giant symbolic eagle, the parliament’s president announces the result, and everybody sings the national anthem. But Saturday’s re-election of conservative Horst Koehler has sparked a lively debate about whether several parliamentarians, the early appearance of an orchestra and a series of flower bouquets gave the results away too early.
“People. You can watch the soccer in peace. The election round has worked,” conservative MP Julia Kloeckner wrote on Twitter, 10 minutes before parliamentary president Norbert Lammert announced that Koehler had scored a one vote victory and defeated the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate Gesine Schwan. Kloeckner’s SPD colleague Ulrich Kelber even announced the results on Twitter three minutes earlier — including the exact vote count. Germany’s president has largely representational functions, but Saturday’s election was seen as a test of party discipline for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives four months ahead of a federal election. Merkel’s allies only held a one seat majority in the special election assembly, and Koehler’s failure to secure a majority in the first round would have triggered a second vote.