Last weekend, the national election season in Germany got an early start. The battle for the Bundestag and the office of Chancellor in September of 2013 is just now getting underway following the nomination of Peer Steinbrück as the candidate of the SPD to run against incumbent Angela Merkel.
The decision to nominate Steinbrück by the leadership of the Social Democrats was somewhat surprising, as most were expecting the decision to come early next year. Steinbrück’s nomination was not the result of a long primary run a la the American marathon. Germans don’t have that option − they may be thankful for this fact as well. It happened behind the doors of the party’s leaders, who decided to submit their nomination of Steinbrück to the SPD Executive Board for approval. That may not make everyone in the SPD happy, but that is the way it is done.
But for exactly that reason, during the next eleven months Steinbrück will need to mobilize his own party behind him − not necessarily an easy walk − and to lay the foundation for what he sees as victory next year: the formation of another coalition with the Greens under his leadership as the next Chancellor. To get there, Steinbrueck has to convince some of his Social Democratic party friends that he is not too far to the right of their views on the party platform, a feeling that some share after his four year partnership with Angela Merkel when he was Finance Minister.
Steinbrück appears to be a strong candidate for the SPD. His colleague Franz-Walter Steinmeier, who ran unsuccessfully against Merkel in 2009 only to wind up in a coalition with her and serve as Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, was not going to try again. And even though Steinbrück was in Merkel’s cabinet, working easily with her in the midst of the economic storm in ‘08 and ‘09, he has been a key source of criticism leveled at the current coalition. Furthermore, he knows his way around the financial policy issues which are certain to drive the campaign battles next year.
Merkel may not be too concerned about next year − for now. She enjoys a high level of personal popularity and has managed to secure the perception among voters that she is protecting their interests. The weaker coalition partner − the FDP − has only underscored that image. She can also point to the fact that she has defeated two SPD challengers in a row, namely Gerhard Schröder in 2005 and Steinmeier in 2009 (although her victory over Schröder was incredibly narrow). She does have options to consider in forming a coalition next year – and remaining Chancellor for a third term – either with the FDP once more, the SPD, or maybe even with the Greens. Her flexibility in governing over the last seven years only testifies to her ability to evaluate coalition options. Remember: She is the only Chancellor to govern in two different coalitions.
Steinbrück’s strategy will be shaped by the economic environment next year and predicting that is a guess, not a guarantee. If there is a recession in the spring of next year, it could make the Chancellor vulnerable. Given the fact that Germans seem to like Merkel’s ability to forge positions which convey consensus, Steinbrück will need to decipher how best to plan his attack. Merkel has managed to create a situation within her own party that makes her appear to be without rivals, and it furthermore sells her policy position as the best of all other alternatives. She has been successful in steering most of her goals through the Bundestag.
With Peer Steinbrück, she will be facing an opponent who will need to present an alternative approach to Germany’s challenges and someone who can pick her defenses apart. Steinbrück may be capable of both tasks. That said, he will need to make sure that his own party goes along with him. Two earlier SPD Chancellors − Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder − saw the SPD fragment over their policy decisions. Steinbrück will need to figure out how to avoid that same party trap. He has already stated that he will not serve in another coalition with Merkel as Chancellor and that he wishes to govern with the Greens. Whether he would agree to govern in another coalition combination is open to speculation. The additional options would include a three way coalition with the Greens and the FDP. But that is a question to be answered a year from now.
Meanwhile, the Greens are having their own internal issues over leadership questions, which they need to answer soon if they are going to present themselves as a strong partner for the SPD − or for another coalition if need be. Getting back into power is always a strong catalyst for any party and the Greens are not immune to this. Moreover, the emergence of the new splinter group called The Pirates (Piratenpartei), now represented in three state parliaments, poses a danger to the Greens voting base if they are going to need full mobilization in order to attain sufficient momentum to form a coalition with the Social Democrats. One interesting aspect will be the two coalitions between the SPD and The Greens in North Rhein-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg. How effective they look in governing two big states might have an impact on the image of a Red-Green coalition come next September. In any case, Peer Steinbrück can add some new adrenalin to the campaign in 2013. He might do well to take a close look before and after the U.S. elections on November 6.
The struggle between Obama and Romney illustrates the challenge of defining a profile and a platform with which as many voters as possible can identify, while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of too many policy specifics. The challenger always has to argue that his alternative is better than the current path. The incumbent has to defend a record. The voters want to see confidence and stability. Germans seem to find both in Merkel now and she needs to sustain that trend. Steinbrück can draw his own conclusions about the loser and the winner in Washington next month. But he − and the Chancellor − will face similar challenges a year from now.
In any case, it promises to be a battle worth watching.
Watch the AICGS At Issue Interview with Peer Steinbrück: