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Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a popular foreign minister, a less popular chancellor candidateImage: dpa

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

August 19, 2009

The rival to Chancellor Angela Merkel in September's election is a man who works closely with her, current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But he faces a strong opponent and multiple challenges.


Kirchmoeser, an industrial district in the city of Brandenburg, is not generally a place many people hear, or even think about.

But it gained national prominence when the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) signed up a new member, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's current foreign minister and the man who is facing off against Angela Merkel in September elections for the nation's top job.

Steinmeier is running for parliament from the constituency that includes Kirchmoeser since, while not absolutely necessary, it will help him to have a home electoral base if he wants to reach his goal of becoming Germany's next chancellor.

And, truth be told, Steinmeier needs all the help he can get.

The parliamentary seat in Kirchmoeser is almost a sure bet for Steinmeier, but the odds of his moving into the chancellery are much longer. An Aug. 19 poll by the Forsa polling organization shows Steinmeier's left-of-center SPD party trailing Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union bloc by 22 percent to 37 percent.

Steinmeier, according to experts, has not been able to energize voters, or even a good deal of his base.

Multiple challenges

"Steinmeier faces some severe problems," said Peter Matuschek, head of Forsa's political department. "He's very popular as foreign minister, however, he has not been able to transfer these approval rates to his role as a candidate."

Steinmeier in mining gear
Steinmeier aims to connect to the working classImage: AP

In fact, he added, one-third of SPD voters would actually prefer Angela Merkel as chancellor.

Frank Gerstmann is not one of them. He is the head of the SPD local chapter in Kirchmoeser and has gotten to know Steinmeier during the foreign minister's visits to his new constituency.

"I think that he fits in here. At the beginning, many people were skeptical. … But he convinced us pretty quickly that he is serious," Gerstmann said.

Still, a steady drumbeat of polls has announced bad news for Steinmeier for some time now. A recent survey by the Emnid group found only nine percent of voters think he'll unseat Angela Merkel on September 27.

In search of a profile

Despite trips around the country trying to raise his profile and a multimedia internet site featuring videos and photos of him from different stages of his life, to many, Steinmeier remains a competent, but rather bland bureaucrat.

"Steinmeier seems to be like a copy, like an administrative version of Merkel, and so he is not very attractive to voters," said Uwe Jun, a political scientist from the University of Trier.

Social Democratic Party election cube in Berlin
Social Democratic Party election cube in BerlinImage: AP

In fact, Steinmeier told a magazine recently he never intended on becoming a politician, it just worked out that way. The 53-year-old lawyer born in the state of Lower Saxony has never held an elected office. He rose to prominence under former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, becoming his chief of staff and one of his closest advisors.

"Mr. Steinmeier was never a real political leader," said Gerd Langguth, a political science professor at the University of Bonn. "He is an election fighter for the first time now. So Merkel is much more experienced in campaigning than Mr. Steinmeier."

It is a level of inexperience that has become clear as the campaign gets going. While Steinmeier is an accomplished diplomat, is not a glad-handing politician and finds it hard to speak in sound bites or get crowds excited.

He can hold his own with world leaders, but does not have the soaring rhetorical gifts of, say, a Barack Obama.

Steinmeier is also burdened by a Social Democratic party in disarray, which is split into left and right wings that are often at odds. Steinmeier's personal popularity has not been helped, especially among those on the left, by his being seen as one of the chief architects of the labor and welfare reforms under Gerhard Schroeder that proved unpopular with many.

Steinmeier and his election campaign team
Steinmeier (center) and his election campaign team are focusing on jobsImage: AP

Deck stacked against him?

Frank Gerstmann, the local SPD chapter leader, will readily admit his candidate faces an uphill battle. The fact that Steinmeier is up against a popular chancellor who has distinguished herself internationally and is seen as a steady hand in a time of economic crisis, would stack the deck against anyone, he says.

However, he likes Steinmeier's quiet, low-key manner and his way of approaching problems logically and with empathy, something that he fears would not be the case with a second-term Merkel, especially if she enters into a coalition with the free-market liberal Free Democrats.

He bristles at the public's impression of him as a bland, briefcase-carrying bureaucrat.

"I am amazed at his incredible patience," he said. "Many people come to him and want to talk about their problems or concerns and he doesn't give the impression that he is just listening because cameras or microphones are present. But he is really interested."

Steinmeier and his party are focusing on job creation and social justice in the campaign, trying to lift their sagging poll numbers. But in the face of his opponent's current good fortune, it might not be enough. Frank-Walter Steinmeier could soon have a lot more time to devote to his new constituency around Kirchmoeser.

Author: Kyle James

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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