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Analysis
Steinbrück shows finance minister calibre - but says No to job

Steinbrück shows finance minister calibre - but says No to job

All quiet on the euro front 

by David Marsh

Mon 2 Sep 2013

Peer Steinbrück, the left-of-centre opposition candidate leading an apparently hopeless charge against Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s 22 September election, made it clear last night he doesn't want what the one post voters would like to give him: finance minister in a Merkel-led Grand Coalition.

Sharp-tongued Steinbrück has done that job already, in the previous coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2005-09. And, as the SPD challenger made clear in last night’s sole TV duel between the two candidates, he has no desire to repeat the experience.

Three weeks before the election, opinion polls give Merkel’s party a 15 point lead over the SPD, but new surveys after last night’s showing indicate that Steinbrück benefits from popular support as a competent political manager. Steinbrück put in a strong performance, with 49% of viewers quizzed by Germany’s first TV channel saying they found him the more convincing figure, against only 44% for Merkel. In view of the mass of difficulties Germany has to resolve in coming years, last night’s respectful TV debate may make a Grand Coalition a slightly more likely option. The well-controlled exchanges between two highly-experienced politicians brought no revelations about Germany’s course in coming years. For most of the 90 minute showing, neither entered into direct arguments with each other, preferring to address voters over the heads of the four ill-coordinated moderators from Germany’s four main TV channels.

As expected, Merkel played down any imminent issue of more money for hard-pressed euro members, saying that Germany and its European partners would decide on possible new assistance for Greece in the light of economic data available only next year.

The Chancellor parried Steinbrück’s criticism of her policies on the single currency with the counter-argument that the SPD had supported all the coalition’s euro rescue measures in the Bundestag. Merkel said solidarity with European partners had to be combined with incentives for reforms - a position that the SPD, should it enter government, would certainly support. Both politicians stressed that Germany would not back any military action over Syria without a full UN mandate.

Neither candidate made evident mistakes, landed any telling blows or was side-tracked away from their chosen choreography of dour technocratic arguments. Steinbrück imparts more information because he speaks far more rapidly (though also less comprehensibly) than the matronly Merkel, who asked viewers to vote for her 'because you know me'. The most powerful politician in Europe bid viewers goodnight at the end of the show with the homely charm of a newsreader.

Almost certainly, German voters don’t like Steinbrück and his party sufficiently to promote him to Chancellor. He has declared that, if he fails to get the No. 1 post, he would withdraw from the political fray rather than carry out a lower-level job in a new Merkel-led government.

If Merkel’s present coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats, fail to win sufficient votes to enter parliament, Germany will almost certainly forge another Grand Coalition. But it would probably be without Steinbrück. In a Steinbrück-less Grand Coalition, the smart money would be on SPD member Jörg Asmussen, Germany’s representative on the six-man board of the European Central Bank, taking over the finance ministry portfolio in Berlin in a new Merkel government.

Merkel and Steinbrück can work competently with each other, as they did in the 2005-09 Grand Coalition. A repeat of such a coalition would correspond to many German voters’ wishes. If it comes about, Steinbrück would face massive pressure to rethink his position and serve one more time under a chancellor he may not admire but plainly respects.

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