Germany's own opposition 'troika' jostle for Merkel's job

Tue, Sep 25, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:FEW OUTSIDERS have noticed, but Germany is plagued by its own troika.The problem is not a bailout trio, but three leading lights in the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) – jostling for a shot at unseating Angela Merkel next year.

The three are SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, the Bundestag floor leader Frank Walter Steinmeier and former finance minister Peer Steinbrück.

First refusal to take on Chancellor Merkel lies with Gabriel.

Though a political protégé of ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, as SPD leader Gabriel has distanced himself from Schröder-era welfare and labour market reforms.

This has won back disillusioned left-wingers and boosted party support to 30 per cent, but hobbled Gabriel’s ability to claim credit for the reform legacy: an economic upturn that has boosted Berlin’s political and financial clout in Europe.

The 53-year-old, nicknamed “Siggi”, does not lack confidence but he is not hugely popular – even his confidants consider him mercurial. Rumour has him ready to sit out this election.

That narrows the field to two. Frank Walter Steinmeier was Schröder’s chief-of-staff and later foreign minister. He is considered competent, amenable and well connected around Europe. Many see him as ideal chancellor material – just not much of a campaigner.

And the SPD knows it cannot afford a repeat of the 2009 debacle when, with Steinmeier as front runner, the party sleepwalked to 23 per cent – the worst general election result in its 150-year history.

Which brings us to Peer Steinbrück, finance minister in Merkel’s first grand coalition government. With his straight-talking manner, this proverbial northern German is a polarising figure.

The 65-year-old proved his mettle during the financial crisis and has secured the blessing of SPD grandee Helmut Schmidt. Now he is working on his image among SPD left-wingers, who consider him too business- friendly.

Steinbrück has produced a paper proposing tighter regulation for Europe’s banking sector which, he says, has learned nothing from the financial crisis. A key proposal is a European bank bailout fund, which he proposes to finance by tapping the advantageous interest rates European banks are granted by traders in the belief that governments will always come to their aid.

“The taxpayer cannot always be the one who pays for ignorance and speculation gone wrong,” said Steinbrück, presenting his €200 billion fund proposal.

Steinbrück has yet to say how he will overcome political opposition to such measures – around Europe and in the G20 – or why he sees the need to correct crisis-fighting measures that carry his own signature as finance minister.

Then there is his sharp tongue, used liberally against political rivals, party colleagues and several smaller European countries.

In 2009 Steinbrück promised to “take the whip” to the Swiss unless they gave ground on banking secrecy to tackle tax evasion.

As recently as last June, he said he found Ireland’s “unacceptable” corporate tax rate a source of “ruinous and unfair competition” – and one that must be tackled soon.

Regardless of who takes on the chancellor, the SPD candidate faces considerable challenges. For all their criticism of Merkel’s crisis strategy, the opposition SPD has given its Bundestag backing at every step.

Also, while most leaders start to flag as their second term concludes, Merkel is still flying high with 66 per cent support.

The SPD troika used their first appearance a year ago to present a series of euro crisis proposals – from debt relief for Greece to euro zone bank recapitalisation – that have since become part of the EU crisis plan.

By presenting a united front, the SPD troika re-established its European credentials. That has been forgotten in recent weeks as it battles Berlin journalists tired of listening to three SPD answers to every question.

A year ago Steinbrück said the SPD troika would reshape the euro zone crisis debate with France’s François Hollande. He “didn’t want important European issues to be overwhelmed by a personnel matter that is not a priority”.

With their troika trundling on, Steinbrück and his SPD colleagues are learning that, in politics as in life, three’s a crowd.