Largely seen by Germans as a competent and known quantity, Peer Steinbrück's nomination as the SPD's candidate to face Angela Merkel won't send his party down a radical new path. But it could land him in the Chancellery.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD) took a long time - nearly too long - to decide who it would put to face Chancellor Angela Merkel in next September's parliamentary election. But the party's answer became clear on Friday (28.09.2012) when it announced Peer Steinbrück would be leading the SPD campaign for the chancellery.
SPD head Sigmar Gabriel and parliamentary group leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier made way for a politician who has not held high party office since the 2009 election. But nominating the 65-year-old Steinbrück follows a clear strategy, according to Gero Neugebauer, an emeritus professor at the Berlin's Free University.
"Besides Steinmeier, Steinbrück is the person who opens the party to the political center," he said. "Unlike Steinmeier, he is also in position to state his views offensively and take a risk."
Tapping Steinbrück a tactical decision
Many Germans still remember Steinbrück as a competent crisis manager and financial expert from his time as finance minister in 2008 when Lehman Brothers went under, and that could help the SPD's chances with voters during the euro crisis. The decision to tap Steinbrück to run against Merkel was a reasonable one, according to Neugebauer.
"The SPD is listening to a certain assessment of its voters: it is moving toward voters who at a time of crisis expect stability, security and change and who are craving for leadership," said Neugebauer.
That matches Steinbrück's reputation as a pragmatist on one hand and a straight-talker on the other.
Neugebauer added that the fact Steinbrück has not held a party office since leaving the Finance Ministry in 2009 could be an advantage for the SPD member of parliament turned chancellor candidate as he will enter the campaign "unencumbered."
"Three years without official office mean three years of not being so front-and-center that mistakes can be attributed to him," Neugebauer said.
SPD shifts to right
Members of the SPD's left-wing will have the hardest time accepting Steinbrück as their official representative. The former finance minister was and remains a supporter of the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced in the mid-00s under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that many have criticized as socially unfair and a point they would like to change if they gained power. Steinbrück's management of the financial crisis while part of Merkel's "grand coalition" government has also left parts of the SPD doubting whether he is more of a friend to workers or an ally to bankers.
While Steinbrück has made advances with his party's left-wing - a plan for the banking sector that he worked on calls for, among other measures, repealing state guarantees for banks, prohibiting highly speculative trades, including computer-driven high-frequency trading, as well as separating investment banks from deposit banking business.
Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Mainz University, said the banking paper showed Steinbrück's willingness to compromise. He also said he did not expect to see the SPD shift to the right as the trio of Steinbrück, Steinmeier and Gabriel encompasses much of the party's political breadth.
"If the three are able to continue working together constructively in the future, then it is not a bad strategic position," Faas said. "Steinbrück tends toward the center, Gabriel represents his party's center-left and Steinmeier focusing on foreign policy - that could work well."
Steinbrück will have to show just how flexible he is when it comes to dealing with pensions during the campaign, Faas added.
"It is going to be an interesting question to see what pension level they decide on," he said, adding that the SPD's right wing wants pensions set at 46 percent while the left has called for 50 percent.
New issues for new voters
The breadth of issues the SPD will address will be one way it can mobilize new voters and replace Merkel in the Chancellery, according to Neugebauer.
"Steinbrück represents a party, one that has wide discussions that includes a lot of people. Merkel, on the other hand, is alone. She has to be clear who she talks to about what, where she sees her strengths," he said.
Recent polls showed that the majority of Germans would elect Merkel if the chancellor was directly elected, but that does not necessarily mean Steinbrück doesn't have a chance, Neugebauer.
"Experience shows that Germans are not as interested in looking at the individual," he said. "It's different than in other electoral system like in the United States or France, voters here choose by party and its ideologies.