Steinbrueck Hits Reset in German Election Campaign After Gaffes

Social Democratic candidate Peer Steinbrueck is hitting the reset button in his campaign to unseat German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As the candidate for a party with its roots in the 19th century labor movement, Steinbrueck, a former finance minister, has created waves with comments focused on his own wallet.

“He himself said that some of his comments have not been very lucky,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the parliamentary leader of the party known by its German acronym SPD, told reporters at a party retreat in Potsdam Jan. 28. “We should go back to discussing the SPD’s themes of social justice which are also Steinbrueck’s themes.”

Since starting his campaign in late 2012, the Social Democrat has said he avoids wine that costs less than 5 euros ($6.72) a bottle and that the chancellor’s salary of 220,000 euros a year was too low.

“He’s very ostentatious in everything but traditional SPD values,” Joerg Forbrig, an analyst at Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an interview. “Steinbrueck cannot but be seen as problematic by traditional SPD members.”

In the national campaign before the vote likely to be held Sept. 22, the SPD polled 25 percent, down two points from when Steinbrueck was elected as party candidate in December, a Forsa survey for Stern magazine showed today. Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc was at 40 percent.

Preferred Partners

The Greens, Steinbrueck’s preferred partner, had 15 percent, according to the poll, and Merkel’s Free Democratic ally was at 4 percent, below the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. That means neither Merkel’s bloc nor the SPD would have a majority with its favored coalition partner.

SPD leaders unveiled a campaign program this week aimed at narrowing the income divide, with proposals to increase taxes for high-income earners and to expand affordable housing and all-day elementary schools.

“I’m all for people with my income paying more taxes,” Steinbrueck said in an interview published today with the weekly Die Zeit. “I consider it just.” Asked about the effect of his comments on the polls, Steinbrueck said he may have to abstain from irony for the time being.

Steinbrueck, 66, who served as Merkel’s finance minister in her so-called grand coalition from 2005 to 2009, played a frontline role in fighting the global financial crisis and was a staunch opponent of tax evasion. Yet his reputation as a crisis manager has been overshadowed by faux pas.

‘Chaos Candidate’

German news magazine Focus published a cover story on Jan. 7 with a photo-montage of Steinbrueck as a bloodied boxer titled: “The chaos-candidate -- has Steinbrueck knocked himself out?” News magazine Der Spiegel on the same day ran a cover-story titled: “Why does Steinbrueck make so many mistakes?

What the candidate says was a “bad start” began with his financial disclosures. Steinbrueck declared he had earned 1.25 million euros by giving 89 speeches since 2009 at companies and banks including Deutsche Bank AG and JP Morgan Chase & Co. He underlined that he’d also given 237 non-paid speeches since leaving the Finance Ministry.

“It doesn’t quite fit the role of an SPD chancellor candidate to be a millionaire, earning substantial amounts speaking at banking events,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “People doubt Steinbrueck is the right person to credibly represent the SPD’s key themes of social justice and defense of the little guy’s interests.”

Speech Canceled

Steinbrueck canceled a Dec. 6 speech at Bank Sarasin & Cie AG after Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that the Swiss private bank was being investigated by German prosecutors for possible tax evasion. Bank Sarasin spokesman Benedikt Gratzl said “there are no indications that the bank did anything wrong.” Steinbrueck’s move came as he and other SPD leaders made tax justice a major election theme.

“He has not stopped talking about money, his money and whether he has an erotic relationship to money,” said Daniel Friedrich Sturm, who published a Steinbrueck biography last year. “This has cost him sympathy.”

Closed-door meetings Steinbrueck held with voters at their homes backfired after a Twitter Inc. user noticed on January 15 that his first visit was to the family of an employee of an SPD parliament member.

Money aside, his comments may hamper his effort to topple the country’s first woman leader.

Steinbrueck has tried to explain Merkel’s lead by saying she profits from a “woman’s bonus” and that female voters are impressed “Merkel made it in a man’s world, seems unpretentious and has a modest appearance.”

Steinbrueck backs quotas for women to close the gender gap in boardrooms, yet SPD members have criticized the absence of women on his campaign team.

“I strongly assume that Peer Steinbrueck will at least include as many women as men in his shadow cabinet,” Agnes Allroggen-Bedel, vice-chair of the Working Group of Social Democratic Woman, was cited by Bild newspaper as saying.

Even when his party won a regional vote in Lower Saxony on Jan. 20, Steinbrueck initially took responsibility for what exit polls first said was an SPD defeat before a final vote count gave the SPD and Greens a single-seat majority.

“There was no tailwind from Berlin,” Steinbrueck said on the election night. “I recognize I have a certain responsibility for it.”