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Germany

Frank-Walter Steinmeier Sets his Sights on Germany's Top Job

Germany's Social Democrats have picked Foreign Minister Steinmeier to run against Angela Merkel in the 2009 elections. DW-WORLD.DE takes a closer look at the man the SPD is pinning its hopes on for the top job.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Steinmeier has never run for political office

For several years, Frank Walter Steinmeier has consistently been among Germany’s three most popular politicians, at times right at the top of the list or trailing slightly behind Christian Democrat chancellor Angela Merkel whom he will now strive to dethrone at the general election next year.

The grey-haired 52-year-old's nomination as candidate for chancellor didn't come as a real surprise. But doubts persist about whether he can inspire on the campaign trail since Steinmeier is an untested challenger -- he has never run for public office

Steinmeier was born in the western German town of Detmold. He joined the SPD in 1976 without ever becoming an entrenched party soldier. A lawyer, Steinmeier became Gerhard Schroeder’s chief of staff when the former chancellor was premier of the state of Lower Saxony.

Following Gerhard Schröder's election as chancellor in 1998, Frank-Walter Steinmeier was appointed head of the chancellory and commissioner for the federal intelligence services. Steinmeier was entrusted with responsibility for overall policy coordination within the federal government.

He became one of Schroeder's closest advisors, coordinating the security services and shaping the Agenda 2010 package of economic reforms -- the unpopular centrepiece of the administration.

Since 2005, he’s been the country’s foreign minister, serving Chancellor Angela Merkel and often standing in her shadow, even in foreign policy matters. This is why political analysts often refer to Steinmeier as Germany’s biggest number two who’s never had to lead a single election campaign.

Tough road ahead

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Steinmeier's opponent and boss is the current chancellor, Angela Merkel

However, Steinmeier is certainly not without merits. As foreign minister, he’s cut an excellent figure in operations to free German hostages in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He’s also played a pivotal role in keeping up the dialogue with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear arms program, as well as in fostering the process of European integration and enlargement.

Steinmeier has quite a challenge ahead of him. He is soft spoken and often looks out of place in large crowds. He tends to lean towards prepared statements rather than off the cuff remarks to the press. Many Germans, including SPD supporters, are worried that Steinmeier won’t have the killer political instinct it will take to unseat Angela Merkel, who has become quite popular.

The foreign minister does have a sense of authority about him, and when he speaks it’s difficult to argue with what he says. As one observer told DW-RADIO however, it’s usually equally difficult to remember a single sentence the minister has uttered. Perhaps he’ll have something more memorable up his sleeve now that he’s the SPD’s candidate for chancellor. So far, he’s steered clear of scoring political points by throwing mud at opponents or rivals, saying it is more important to tell people what you yourself stand for so that they can judge in which way you’re different. Whether this strategy will pay off during the 2009 general election remains to be seen.

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