Every year in February, thousands of Germans cast off their usual composure and dress up in costume to celebrate the “fifth season” of the year: Carnival. One particularly popular activity during this period is attending the traditional Rose Monday carnival parades, which include huge floats caricaturing German and European politicians and mocking current political affairs. This year, one of the floats’ major objects of satirical attack was Angela Merkel’s opponent in the upcoming German federal elections in September, Peer Steinbrück.
Steinbrück, who is running as candidate for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), recently engaged in a number of verbal gaffes that “earned” him a place on the floats. In one remark, Steinbrück commented on how he found the chancellor’s salary to be too low. In another, he claimed that Merkel had a “women’s bonus” with the population. For a party that traditionally promotes the interests of workers, women, and socially disadvantaged groups, these remarks represented a disastrous start to the campaigning season and sparked serious concern over Steinbrück’s suitability as chancellor.
Political analysts had initially hailed the SPD’s move to announce Steinbrück as candidate in October 2012. As former Minister of Finance, Steinbrück had proven himself to the population by leading Germany through much of the financial turmoil of 2008 and 2009. His sharp tongue had already caused some stirs, but his technical expertise and outspoken manner appealed to many voters. He was considered the most promising candidate to bring the social democrats back into power, and former Chancellor Helmut Schmitt assured the population that Steinbrück “could do it.”
After Steinbrück’s recent blunders, however, both his party and the wider population are unsure about whether this statement still holds true. The German satire magazine Der Postillon ironically titled one of its recent articles, “Success, Steinbrück without major blooper for at least 24 hours.” Opinion polls confirm that Germans have little trust in Steinbrück’s ability to be chancellor. Were Germans to vote for the office in direct elections, incumbent Angela Merkel would win by a mile.
As a party, the SPD is suffering from Steinbrück’s continuing gaffes. Despite the party’s landslide victory in regional elections in Lower Saxony in January, opinion polls show only twenty-seven percent support at the federal level. In contrast, Merkel’s conservative party (the CDU) has around forty percent support. Nothing is written in stone, and the SPD and CDU’s traditional coalition partners (the Greens and the Liberals, respectively) will play an important role in determining the outcome, but prospects for the social democrats are not particularly promising.
So how should the SPD and Steinbrück proceed? There are two options. The more radical option would be to replace Steinbrück with another candidate. This is unlikely, and alternatives to Steinbrück are sparse. SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel and parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier lost to Steinbrück in the SPD internal preliminaries and would probably not be able to turn the tide. One of the few who could boost the SPD’s profile would be current Minister-President of North-Rheine Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, who is known for her pragmatic style and skill for building political compromise. However, Kraft announced early on that she was not considering running for chancellor and would stay in her current post.
The other option would be to reboot Steinbrück’s campaign and start it afresh. What Steinbrück is lacking most is a vision of the country and a strategy for how to improve the lives of the German population. In its 150-year history, the SPD has always been an advocate of social justice and the driving force behind efforts to refocus the political spotlight on the socially disadvantaged. Steinbrück must return to these roots in order to appeal to the electorate. Merkel is not the better choice for Germany but appears to be the safer option—the known evil. That is not the foundation on which the electorate should base its vote.
Issues such as the integration of immigrants, poverty (especially among children and the elderly), and the status of women in Germany are topics of utmost importance but have been overshadowed by the Euro crisis. While the latter is naturally a focus of the political debate, it is these less obvious social issues that touch people’s lives and can help reshape the SPD’s political profile.
Recently, Steinbrück has made some positive steps. He announced that the SPD would raise taxes on the wealthy to finance the education system and reduce debts. Similarly, during his visit to Greece, he explicitly called for solidarity with the country and stated that Greece deserved trust from European leaders. These incidents are promising, but Steinbrück needs to sharpen the SPD’s social profile further. It is through social issues that the SPD defines its distinctiveness and can offer a vision of Germany that the electorate will truly embrace.