Merkel’s One-Time Ally Steinbrueck Forges Plan to Unseat Her

German opposition candidate Peer Steinbrueck’s drive to become chancellor is going into reverse.

Steinbrueck’s Social Democratic Party gathers this weekend in the Bavarian town of Augsburg as the gap with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc widens. The SPD’s answer is a platform that appeals to core Socialist values from reining in banks to taxing the rich and reducing social inequality it says has grown under Merkel. Delegates will vote on the platform on April 14.

Even if voters prove responsive to the SPD message, they’ve yet to embrace its bearer. Steinbrueck, the finance minister in Merkel’s first-term coalition who’s now vying to unseat her at Sept. 22 federal elections, needs to overcome a poll deficit of as much as 18 percentage points, even as his personal rating, already low, is on the decline.

“It’s the worst of all combinations,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels center of the Carnegie Endowment, said in an interview. “You have a candidate who doesn’t match the party; an SPD which still hasn’t recovered from its all-time low in the last election; and there’s no sense that voters want a change or that Merkel’s a spent force.”

Less than six months before the election, Steinbrueck’s challenge is to stop Merkel securing a third term by winning over an electorate that says it likes what she does. The task is all the greater after more than three years of euro-area crisis that has thrust Merkel to the fore of Europe’s policy response, winning her plaudits at home even as she’s blamed elsewhere for causing an economic and political rift dividing north and south.

‘Huge Amount’

Seventy percent of respondents to an FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television today said that Merkel has done a good job during the crisis, and 24 percent said her handling of the turmoil that spread from Greece was bad. Even among SPD voters, 60 percent said that they backing her approach.

“A huge amount has to be done, no doubt about it,” Gerhard Schroeder, the former SPD chancellor who served two terms at the head of a coalition with the Green Party before losing to Merkel in 2005, said in a television interview with Bloomberg HT yesterday in Adana, Turkey.

Steinbrueck’s challenge has grown more formidable as polls show Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc moving into position to reprise its current coalition with the Free Democratic Party.

Support for Merkel’s coalition climbed to 47 percent in a Forsa poll published April 10, the highest level since January 2010, projecting a clear majority for the first time in more than three years. The SPD and Greens dropped two percentage points to a combined 37 percent in the April 2-5 poll of 2,002 voters. The results have a margin of error of as much as 2.5 percentage points.

Fumbled Statements

Steinbrueck goes to Bavaria seeking to rekindle his base and narrow the gap with the chancellor after a series of fumbled statements that tarnished his reputation gained in government as a crisis manager. The party is due to sign off on policies including the introduction of a minimum hourly wage of 8.50 euros ($11.15), bonus caps and a “redemption fund” to pool euro-area debt and help alleviate the north-south division.

More difficult for Steinbrueck may be championing policies -- and rhetoric -- at odds with the positions he espoused as Merkel’s finance chief and a rescuer of the country’s banks.

With public backing for Merkel’s crisis management and what’s seen as a steady hand on the economy, the SPD has geared its message toward turning back the tide of unhindered capitalism and wealth redistribution: it wants to raise the top tax rate for those earning more than 100,000 euros to 49 percent from as much as 45 percent.

Pent-Up Pressure

“The pressure’s built up over these crisis years and comes from voters who want real change, whether in labor-market rules or in reining in the excesses of banks,” Matthias Ecke, 30, a deputy chairman of the party’s JUSO young Socialist wing, said in an interview.

All the same, while 81 percent of the 1,302 respondents to today’s FG Wahlen poll said they were in favor of Steinbrueck’s minimum-wage plans, 54 percent said that an SPD-Green government wouldn’t have much impact on social justice.

As he steps forward as a champion of the have-nots, Steinbrueck has confounded the SPD’s base by proclaiming that the chancellor’s 220,000-euro salary is too low and drawing criticism for accepting fees for speeches to industry groups. His approval rating dropped to an 8-year low of 32 percent compared with 68 percent for Merkel, an April 5 ARD broadcaster poll showed.

Party Polls

While Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc leads the SPD by 41 percent to 23 percent in the latest Forsa poll, Germany’s electoral calculus means that she needs a coalition partner, and support for her current FDP ally is hovering at or barely above the threshold to win parliamentary seats. Of the six regular opinion polls, only Forsa gives her current coalition a governing majority.

The SPD also is unified behind its platform and is closing ranks behind its candidate. Steinbrueck “is the galleon figure” for the platform, Ernst Dieter Rossmann, an SPD lawmaker in the progressive left wing of the party, said by phone. “He has our full confidence.”

What’s more, the SPD has been here before. In April 2005, a little less than six months before the election, Schroeder too trailed Merkel by 18 percentage points. He hauled his party back to within one point of Merkel’s bloc on election day, confounding the polls and allowing the SPD to re-enter government, albeit with Merkel taking his place as chancellor.

“We’ve had the experience that six months ahead of the election you can’t make any predictions that are reliable,” Schroeder said yesterday. “As far as I’ve known Peer Steinbrueck, he’ll win elections, not top polls.”

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