Merkel versus Steinbruek
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opposition challenger Peer Steinbrueck launched the opening round of the 2013 election campaign Thursday, as they squared off in parliament over resolving Europe's long-running debt crisis. While Merkel claimed Europe had made progress in tackling the crisis, Steinbrueck lashed out at her handling of the financial meltdown threatening the 17-member currency bloc.
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2012
Nominated last month as the Social Democrats' (SDP) chancellor candidate, Steinbrueck accused Merkel of not being straight in the 3-year-old crisis, saying she had allowed members of her conservative-led government "to launch a bullying campaign against Greece." "This is the speech you should have given to parliament two years ago," the 65-year-old Steinbrueck told the chancellor, who had just outlined in parliament a series of measures aimed at strengthening the currency bloc and which she was to present to a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels later Thursday.
This included the creation of a new fund to help cash-strapped currency bloc states to bolster their competitiveness in the face of recession and tough fiscal austerity. The so-called "solidarity" fund would be financed by the proceeds from a future financial transaction tax.
"We've done a lot in these last three years," Merkel said. "We've achieved a lot more than in previous years in Europe and the contours of a stability union are already discernible." But judging by the criticism she has faced from other European leaders in the build-up to the two-day summit in Brussels, her talks with Germany's EU partners were likely to prove as acrimonious as Thursday's heated debate in the parliament in Berlin.
The clash in parliament between the Merkel and Steinbrueck took place against the backdrop of a new poll showing 77 per cent of Germans believe that the 58-year-old chancellor is a strong leader. This compared with 53 per cent for Steinbrueck. After helping to push the SPD to a six-year high of 31 per cent in a poll published earlier this month, the Steinbrueck effect seems to faded slightly with his party slipping back below 30 per cent in a survey published this week. Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats stood at 37 per cent.
Since he was nominated as the opposition's standard-bearer at next September's national election, Steinbrueck has come under fire in both the media and from Merkel's coalition for the money he has earned on the highly-paid lecture circuit. This was in addition to his parliamentary salary.
A former premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia, and a member of the SPD's more conservative wing, Steinbreuck has also faced criticism from left-wing members of the SPD for his links to business. After losing the election in North Rhine Westphalia in 2005, Steinbrueck emerged a few months later on the national political stage as finance minister in Merkel's so-called grand coalition with the SPD. As finance minister, Steinbrueck also helped to steer Germany through the crisis following the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008.
For the moment, most analysts are expecting Merkel to be returned to power for a third term after next year's election. But the polls have also raised doubts about whether Merkel's current coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, will be able to garner the necessary 5 per cent of the national vote to return to parliament after the national ballot. Analysts believe this could force Merkel to again forge a coalition with the SPD. Steinbrueck is aware of that: he has already announced he is not available to serve as a minister in any new grand coalition headed up by Merkel.