Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SPD - from dream team to nightmare

Earlier this year, the SPD's leading pack looked like a dream team: Steinmeier, the uncharismatic but competent and modern third-way Social Democrat as the candidate for the chancellory. Given the Germans' knack for uncharismatic leadership, not such a bad choice, you would think. Then, as his most important companion, Franz Müntefering, the party's rather rustic, old-style, plain-speaking chairman. Perfectly suited to court traditional workers and party loyalists. Grouped around Steinmeier and Müntefering you would find not only respected and battle-tested cabinet ministers such as Peer Steinbrück and Ulla Schmidt, but also a bunch of younger, more left-leaning heavy-weights, among them Andrea Nahles, labor minister Olaf Scholz, and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. And, best of all, they would all play in concert, forgoing for the time being on the Social Democrats' favourite pastime, infighting. Add to this some fresh faces from state cabinets and the back benches of parliament, and Steinmeier's posse looks like a formidable team. More than that, it looked like an ideal team, tying all relevant wings of the party together, covering all important issues.

But instead of slowly working the poll data up, this team has managed to drive the figures down for the SPD. The latest data published today by Allensbach pollsters show yet another loss for the SPD which is currently expected to garner about 23.5 per cent of the vote. What happened?

First of all, Steinmeier was unable so far to (a) create an image of someone who really wants to be chancellor, (b) to create an urge in voters to replace Mrs Merkel with him, (c) to energize his own folks, (d) to translate his popularity as Foreign Minister into any kind of political clout, (e) to at least convince people that he would be the better problem solver. According to Allensbach, those believing that he would be more competent than Merkel in dealing with the financial and economic crisis decreased from 14 per cent last December to 9 per cent in August. These are abysmal numbers.

Secondly, Franz Müntefering has all but disappeared from the political stage. His recent attempts to insert some sharpness into the debate by accusing the chancellor of being unconcerned about unemployment evaporated without any visible effect. Instead, it increasingly seems that the old "Münte" magic, a mixture of stubbornness, cheekiness, and simplicity is a spent force. Whenever he makes himself heard, it sounds like his statements are coming from somewhere far away on the outside, not from where the game is being played.

Thirdly, the SPD's cabinet ministers don't work well for Steinmeier. Ulla Schmidt, in charge of the health portfolio, has turned from a campaign asset into a nightmare with a seemingly never-ending scandal about the private use of her official service vehicle. Although this scandal is blown way out of proportion, it's a gift that keeps on giving for Merkel's CDU and the tabloid press. Merkel has also managed to neutralize finance minister Steinbrück by making him her trusted aide during the financial crisis. This nicely added to the already existing image of him being a less reliable SPD party soldier, and made him almost useless during the campaign.

And finally, the SPD's young guns have decided to wait for their own turn four years down the road. They have realized that Steinmeier is a losing ticket and that the party will almost naturally fall into their hands after the elections. They are not openly undermining the campaign, but most of them are keeping their powder dry while attempting to not be too closely associated with what looks like the party's past.

It looks increasingly unlikely that this team will be able to create the momentum to change the SPD's fortune so late in the game. And it becomes more and more likely that the post-election SPD will look very different from the pre-election one -- no matter whether the party will be in or outside government.

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