Germany’s Social Democratic Party is stepping up its attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the U.S. surveillance scandal, as the opposition spots a campaign opportunity to turn around its electoral fortunes.
SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck used a weekend interview on the disclosures of mass surveillance to accuse Merkel of breaking her oath to protect the German people. SPD Chief Whip Thomas Oppermann escalated the criticism yesterday, slamming the chancellor’s conciliatory tone as she reiterated that privacy concerns must be balanced by security prerogatives. Committee lawmakers broke off their summer vacation to quiz the interior minister on the latest developments in Berlin today.
“This is a scandal that people get emotional about,” Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Brussels office, said by phone from the Belgian capital. “There is some potential political juice in it that you try to squeeze out, for sure.”
The SPD push over the U.S. National Security Agency’s spying activity reflects Steinbrueck’s search for a successful weapon against Merkel less than 10 weeks before election that will determine whether she wins a third term. To date, his policies including tax increases for the wealthy, rent controls and a clampdown on banking practices the SPD deems risky have failed to buoy the party or dent the chancellor’s popularity.
With the SPD trailing Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc by as many as 18 percentage points, that leaves Steinbrueck to try and turn the spying affair to his advantage in his quest to gain traction with voters before the Sept. 22 ballot.
“We want to know what the government knows about the surveillance activity of the U.S. in Germany,” Oppermann, the SPD chairman of a parliamentary panel that oversees intelligence matters, said yesterday in an interview with ARD television. Merkel “doesn’t seem to care,” he said. “Obviously she wants to sit out this affair.”
Whereas Merkel says Germany must wait for the U.S. to declassify NSA files on spy programs before it reaches a conclusion about the scale of the activities, the SPD and its Green Party allies are demanding that she be more resolute. They say her government should have been aware of the scale of programs such as Prism, which mines data from technology companies, and must press the U.S. for answers.
The opposition has also targeted Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, who returned from a fact-finding mission in the U.S. at the weekend and initially defended the surveillance measures for halting terrorist attacks in Europe. Steinbrueck, speaking in a Bild newspaper interview published July 14, called Friedrich’s visit a “complete insult.”
Friedrich appeared in private yesterday in front of the Parliamentary Control Panel, a body of nine legislators that oversees intelligence issues headed by the SPD’s Oppermann. He is due to brief the lower-house Interior Affairs Committee in private today on the government’s actions so far and its approach to the surveillance.
“The SPD and Greens believe they’ve finally found the campaign ammunition with which they can put the chancellor under pressure,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a lawmaker with Merkel’s CDU who heads the committee, said by phone yesterday. “It only shows how desperate the parties are. Obviously they don’t believe anymore that they can score on other issues.”
Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc held at 41 percent for the fourth straight week in a Forsa poll for Stern magazine released today. That compared to 23 percent for the SPD, up 1 percentage point on the week though still less than the 27 percent support at the turn of the year, underscoring Steinbrueck’s challenge in appealing to voters with his campaign of social justice.
The Greens, which governed as junior coalition partner in an SPD-led government from 1998 to 2005, dropped a point to 14 percent, while Merkel’s Free Democratic partner also held at 5 percent for a fourth week. Forsa polled 2,502 voters on July 8-13. The margin of error was about 2.5 percentage points.
German officials have bridled nevertheless at revelations about the surveillance programs. Merkel’s top spokesman said July 1 that “we aren’t in the Cold War anymore,” following allegations that the NSA had spied on European Union diplomats.
Merkel pushed back this week by demanding that U.S. personnel adhere to German data-protection law when operating on German soil and pressing for companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. to disclose with whom they share data.
For all the opposition fury and media attention, the SPD will probably find it challenging to successfully confront the chancellor on the issue, Manfred Guellner, head of Berlin-based pollster Forsa, said in a telephone interview.
“It’s too abstract,” Guellner said. “If Steinbrueck says that Merkel broke her oath of office, the people don’t understand that at all.”