The announcement last week that Peer Steinbrück would be the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate in Germany’s next general elections in September 2013 came as a surprise, given the SDP’s insistence over the past month that the decision on the party nominee would be taken closer to date of the actual polls. The party had promised a campaign based on programs, not personalities, even if it was clear that one of the SDP’s ruling troika -- party chief Sigmar Gabriel, head of the parliamentary group Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Steinbrück, a former president of the North Rhine-Westphalia lander and finance minister in the grand coalition of 2005-2009 -- would be the party’s standard-bearer.
The surprising quickness of the decision was linked to the SDP’s recent congress at the end of September, where reorienting the party’s position on retirement reform emerged as a major goal. The party’s left wing had been lobbying for a withdrawal from the current agreement fixing retirement at 67 years of age. Nominating Steinbrück, to the right among the center-left Social Democrats, represents a subtle effort to influence the party’s line on the issue.
Steinbrück, known as rough, direct and undiplomatic -- not the kind of politician who pampers the electorate -- seems not to care about whether his stance is a popular one among the party base. His stated goal is to first win the election and then change the country. Steinbrück would bring a pragmatic, sober character and professional competence to the chancellorship: He is fluent in English and familiar with the world of global finance from his term as finance minister. In his book, “Unterm Strich,” written after the financial crisis, he criticized financial markets as having escaped the control of regulation and argued for re-establishing the primacy of politics over markets, while also closely scrutinizing the weaknesses and clientelism of the German Federal Republic. If the book goes on to serve as the basis for policy, Germany would indeed look different after a Steinbrück chancellorship. Steinbrück’s vision clearly goes beyond the trench wars of daily politics to raise questions about where Germany should be heading in both a European and a global setting.