The Social Democrats' party conference over the weekend offered voters another look at Angela Merkel's challenger in the upcoming election. The mood was electric at the event, even for non-party guests.
After the first sentence from Peer Steinbrück, listeners spontaneously got up from their seats and delivered two minutes of thunderous applause. Angela Merkel's challenger, who has been often criticized in recent weeks, had merely said he wanted to become chancellor. That was nothing new. But the way in which Steinbrück delivered the line - with no introduction - moved his audience.
Dieter and Renate Mathes did not expect such an opener. "He really mobilized us today for the campaign," said the two retirees. They want to know why Steinbrück's Social Democrat party (SPD) has failed to resonate with voters.
The latest surveys by leading pollsters show that if the election were held today, 63 percent of Germans would prefer Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) to Peer Steinbrück. There are similar results for the make-up of parliament. Governing coalition member CDU leads the SPD with 42 to 27 percent. However, current polls also suggest the CDU would lose its coalition partner, the center-right FDP.
That could spell an opportunity for the SPD, which wants to secure victory in parliamentary elections on September 22 with their partners, the Green Party.
Claudia Roth, the Green Party's co-chair, also spoke at the SPD convention, calling the current government coalition the worst of all time and accusing Angela Merkel of coldness on social issues. Roth said she is seeking not just a change of government in Germany, but a "change of system." Steinbrück went on to add that he sees no future for misanthropic capitalism, tying that view to his campaign motto that focuses on solidarity among voters.
Peer Steinbrück says a central issue for him is distributing Germany's tax revenue in a more just way. At the SPD convention, party members agreed to higher taxes for top earners in Germany. But since just eight percent of the German working population earns more than 100,000 euros ($131,000), according to an estimate from Germany's Federal Statistical Office, a host of new measures is intended to raise additional tax revenue. Additionally, players in finance would face tougher restrictions, and some bank deals would be forbidden. Steinbrück has issued a challenge to financial speculators.
The candidate for chancellor says he would like to invest more in education and in family politics, saying he still sees too many segments of the German population that are socially disadvantaged. Rent and energy prices would face stricter controls under an SPD-led government.
A number of elements in the party's platform did not come from delegates. Instead, they stem from politically engaged citizens who are not official party members. It was an attempt to bring the 150-year-old SPD closer to everyday voters. Many conference attendees view the move as pure grandstanding, but not Maren and Sven, two guests in attendance. They support an SPD candidate they see as battle-ready and optimistic, even though Maren admits that she is not the typical SPD voter.
But Maren and Sven say they don't entirely understand how the SPD aims to finance its pledges. The German press has denigrated the SPD's proposal as a "warm and fuzzy platform" or a "social justice put-on."
The SPD's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who unsuccessfully ran against Angela Merkel in federal elections in 2009, is convinced the party's math adds up. "It's doable. We have done the calculations on everything," he told DW.
Seeking 'new' diplomacy
Frank-Walter Steinmeier heads the SPD faction in the German parliament and stressed the importance of a new approach to foreign policy. He says he is disappointed that the current federal government has lost influence abroad, including in the Middle East, where the SPD would like to work further on the two-state solution in Israel.
The SPD's platform also pledges further support for movements associated with the Arab Spring. And the approved party platform promises EU membership to Turkey, while foreign immigrants to Germany would no longer have to choose between one of two passports. Peer Steinbrück has said that, as chancellor, he would support the introduction of dual citizenship in Germany, despite what Steinmeier admits have been problems in the past. "In the future, we have to help young immigrants on that point," Steinmeier says.
The SPD further declared that Europe must do more to reach its goals on development issues. If elected, the party would like to live up to pledges to invest 0.7 percent of GDP in development aid. Foreign missions by Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, should also be more carefully examined, the SPD says.
"But that's also what we did when we were still in charge of the government," Steinmeier noted, adding that the government's weapons exports would be strictly controlled under an SPD and Green coalition government.
Many attendees shared the party's vision but remained skeptical that the SPD has what it takes to implement its ideas. However, many were impressed with Peer Steinbrück's showing. "He is just authentic," said one observer.
There was little talk of Steinbrück's campaign missteps, or his rather clumsy transformation from a well-paid political speaker with close ties to business to a preacher for social justice. Now, the question is whether that mood can be carried over into the campaign season.