Angela Merkel landed a first punch on Monday on her new Social Democratic rival in next year’s election. The German chancellor described the manner in which the SPD had nominated Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her cabinet colleague, “unworthy of a major party”.
Her words followed a tumultuous meeting of SPD grandees on Sunday in which their nomination of Mr Steinmeier was almost eclipsed by the resignation of Kurt Beck, the party leader. The beleaguered politician accused colleagues of plotting against him.
But the chancellor left direct attacks on Mr Steinmeier, the centrist foreign minister, to others in her party to avoid contributing to fears the three-year-old coalition of Christian and Social Democrats will be paralysed or could founder with a year left in office.
So while Ronald Pofalla, the CDU general secretary, accused the foreign minister of maintaining a “loud silence” about the domestic policy issues that have divided the SPD’s left and reformist wings, a government spokesman highlighted a phone call in which Ms Merkel and Mr Steinmeier pledged business as usual.
With Franz Müntefering, the new party chairman and SPD stalwart, using his authority to check better the left, Mr Steinmeier has the chance to present a more unified party, touting the reforms both men drew up under Gerhard Schröder, the previous SPD chancellor,
A senior SPD member said Mr Steinmeier’s electoral platform – already agreed in outline – would “place a strong economic policy component” next to the more familiar welfare demands. “We want to show the SPD is not just about social justice but also about fostering the economy,” he said.
Jürgen Falter, a political scientist at Mainz University, said: “This is going to make the SPD more attractive for the middle-class centre and that will strengthen the SPD and weaken the CDU. The CDU has to be worried about what happened on Sunday; governing will get harder and from January there will be no governing at all.”
Politicians from both camps privately agreed. They pointed to difficult cross-party talks about inheritance tax and healthcare reforms and extending minimum wages beyond the postal sector. A much-needed rethink of the fiscal links between Berlin and the states is expected to founder.
Conservatives complained that voters might blame policy paralysis on Ms Merkel. Mr Pofalla dared Mr Steinmeier to stop the SPD in Hessen forming a minority state government under the toleration of the new Left party, home to former east German communists and SPD defectors under Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD chairman.
This issue is the SPD’s weakest point and the one that undid Mr Beck. In the spring he allowed the party in Hessen to dabble with what had long been taboo in the SPD. This showed how reliant the once centrist Mr Beck had become on his left-wingers, and caused the Social Democrats’ poll ratings to collapse.
It is a testament to the continuing power of the SPD left that Mr Steinmeier said he would not try to intervene in the formation of a government in Hessen. Left party toleration of an SPD-led regional government would be an irritant for Mr Steinmeier in a national election but one he could deal with.
Manfred Güllner, head of Forsa, the polling firm, said: “Steinmeier should be able to distance himself from the Left party at national level much more effectively than Beck. But the fact he may have to do that shows that he and Müntefering will not have solved the SPD’s crisis even if they manage to calm the party now.”
The unresolved question of whether the SPD will find salvation in moving to the middle or left means the circumstances of Mr Beck’s departure are a burning issue. Did he quit in frustration at the speed of the nomination of the man he, too, favoured? Or did he fall to a centrist-led conspiracy?
Mr Steinmeier has said Mr Beck’s departure was unforeseen. But a senior SPD member said centrists and leftists had agreed Mr Steinmeier needed to be flanked by a new party boss. It is an open question if all leftwingers can live with this. Ralf Stegner, a leading leftist, said Mr Beck’s demise had been a “bit quick”.