Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

More issues, less Steinbrück?

With the German election fast approaching, the SPD is determined to shift the campaign focus from personalities to policy substance.

Excitement was guaranteed at the Länder elections in Germany´s fourth biggest state Lower Saxony on January 20th. The ballot was widely seen as key indicator for the federal elections in September. But nobody had expected the race to be quite as exciting as it turned out: at the end of a long election night, the SPD and the Green Party were only one parliamentary seat ahead of the incumbent coalition of the conservative CDU and the liberal FDP.

Peer Steinbrück must have felt relieved. The social democratic candidate for the federal election had made life difficult for the elections campaigners in Lower Saxony. Following the outrage about the generous extra earnings he received for lectures since he left office as finance minister in 2009, Steinbrück had acted clumsily and undiscerning: for example, he insisted on giving one last lecture at a private bank three days before he was supposed to be elected as candidate. The label “problem Peer” did the rounds – and doubts about the effectiveness of some of his advisors in the party headquarters were rising.

However, the lucky election result in Lower Saxony spared Peer Steinbrück a debate about whether he was the right candidate. This is especially true as the structure of the social democratic electorate in Lower Saxony indicates that Steinbrück´s series of breakdowns did not frighten off as many lower and middle class voters as feared: the SPD profited from an influx of voters who had previously abstained, as well as gaining 57,000 former conservative and liberal voters. At the same time, the exodus to the Green Party was considerable, leaving the biggest share of votes in the red-green camp. What also plays into the hands of the SPD is the fact that the two small parties on the left – the Left party and the Pirates – lost support, thus confirming a nation-wide trend.

On the other side of the fence, the result represented a triple shock for Angela Merkel’s CDU. Firstly, it was the tenth Länder election in a row in which the SPD claimed a cabinet role. In five cases, it held its ground and stayed in government, whilst the other five victories saw the party exchange opposition benches for government seats. Even though this trend should not be confused with a broadened electoral base (most of the time the SPD maintained its percentage level or improved only slightly), this represents a success story which the party can continually refer to in the upcoming election campaign. Moreover, with its victory in Lower Saxony, the SPD and Greens gained an absolute majority in the second chamber Bundesrat, giving the red-green coalition the ability to hamper conservative-liberal legislation for years to come. Merkel’s government is now a lame duck.

Secondly, in Lower Saxony we witnessed the resurrection of the liberal FDP. Since most polls put the party below the five-percent-hurdle (below which a party cannot enter the parliament), many conservative partisans voted tactically for the FDP in order to make a conservative-liberal coalition possible – encouraged to do so by leading conservative politicians. As a result, the FDP received an incredible 9.9 percent. It is essentially now a party which exists on life support from the CDU.

This “blood sucking” settlement has implications for the conservative-liberal coalition at federal level, as Merkel is forced, in light of the election year, to distance herself from her coalition partner. “Everybody is fighting on its own”, she announced with regard to the September election. Apart from that, the result has had major consequences for the power structure inside the FDP. The 9.9 per cent “victory” stabilised the highly unpopular party chairman Philipp Rösler, who was supposed to be deprived of power at the next party congress. Now the regicide is postponed, and the FDP will be led into the election campaign by a chairman surrounded by a legion of inner party enemies.

Thirdly – and most importantly: in Lower Saxony, the limits of Angela Merkel’s long-term strategy became evident. On the one hand, the approach of strategically aiming to deter potential opposition voters from turning out on election day, by avoiding controversial topics and occupying social democratic issues, was unsuccessful – a strategy David McAllister copied from Angela Merkel. It might be said that Merkel’s approach of demobilising the voters of her political opponents has started to demobilise her own constituency. The CDU lost far more voters than the FDP received from the conservatives.

On the other hand, banking on personal popularity and incumbency did not pay off. Minister President David McAllister lost, although he was far more popular and had higher competence scores than his social democratic challenger Stephan Weil – and despite several public appearances by Angela Merkel during the campaign. In the end, issues were more important than personalities: “An election is not a beauty contest”, as Stephan Weil put it.

Herein lays a chance for the SPD. “More issues, less Steinbrück” – party leaders hope to put Steinbrück´s gaffes at the back of people’s minds by putting policy issues at the forefront of the campaign. The challenge will be to polarise and politicise a country where the main parties have reached a consensus on all important political issues, be it the European crisis management, the use of renewable energy or military operations.

The next step is the party convention in April, where a “governing programme” will be adopted and a “competence team “presented. Whether this plan works, also depends on the way the candidate acts in the weeks and months ahead. Unfortunately, in the last few days controversies about a support blog for Steinbrück paid for by business people gave his opponents further reason to publically question his Chancellor credentials. This does not augur well for the future.


This Text was first published at our partner institution policy network