Germany’s Social Democrats close gap on Angela Merkel with new leader

The Guardian, October 3, 2012

Germany‘s opposition party, the Social Democrats (SPD), has closed the gap on Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s Christian Democrats following the selection of her former finance minister to lead their general election campaign next year.

Polls show that the choice of Peer Steinbrück as the SPD challenger last week has given the party a significant boost in its attempt to oust Merkel. The SPD is now enjoying its highest level of support in a year.

A Forsa survey shows that the SPD has gained three points from a week earlier to 29% after the selection of the feisty, plain-speaking 65-year-old. Merkel’s party dropped three points to 35%.

The combined support for the SPD and the party’s preferred partner, the Greens, is now 41%, marginally ahead of the 39% support for the ruling centre-right coalition.

The polls seem to vindicate the SPD’s choice of the man regarded as most capable of poaching centrist voters from Merkel’s party and its struggling coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

The SPD had been under pressure to decide between putting forward former candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, party leader Sigmar Gabriel or Steinbrück as the best contender to unseat Merkel in the September 2013 election.

The hope is that Steinbrück’s track record will convince swing voters that he would be a safe pair of hands for dealing with the eurozone crisis.

As finance minister in the grand coalition that paired Merkel’s party with the SPD from 2005 and 2009, he helped steer Germany through the economic crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers by recapitalising the banks and stimulating the economy.

Since leaving office he has been an outspoken critic of Merkel’s handling of the ensuing euro turmoil and has said Greece should be given more time to implement reforms. This week he likened her to a pilot who hasn’t told the passengers where she intends to land the plane.

His nomination could be something of a gamble. His acerbic wit and combative manner can ruffle feathers. After he loudly heckled Wolfgang Schäuble in parliament last year, the finance minister shot back: “If you want to become chancellor, you better learn some manners.”

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