Merkel challenger more diplomat than campaign warrior

Merkel challenger more diplomat than campaign warrior

25th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

A policy wonk by nature, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has spent most of his political career behind closed doors, honing his skills as a technocrat as he climbed the greasy pole one appointment at a time.

Germany's embattled chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier has won respect in his four years as foreign minister but has had trouble finding his footing in his first attempt to run for office.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger, who is struggling to galvanise his fractious party for battle, is the affable but guarded protégé of her charismatic predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.

Despite a relatively strong showing at a head-to-head TV debate this month, Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party (SPD) is about 10 points behind in the polls.

Even supporters admit that taking on the high-flying Merkel may turn into a kamikaze mission on behalf of the party.

A policy wonk by nature, the 53-year-old Steinmeier has spent most of his political career behind closed doors, honing his skills as a technocrat as he climbed the greasy pole one appointment at a time.

Behind closed doors

Schroeder made Steinmeier one of his closest advisors during his seven years in power, and eventually his chief of staff, a job in which he coordinated the security services and shaped the Agenda 2010 package of job market reforms.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses an election rally in the western German city of Bochum on 21 September 2009

The tough measures were the centrepiece of the administration, successful in driving down unemployment but also a key factor in the party's ongoing identity crisis and weakness in the polls.

He emerged from the shadows after the inconclusive 2005 general election, when Schroeder put him forward as his candidate to take over the foreign ministry in negotiations on the formation of a "grand coalition."

A student of law with a cautious streak, Steinmeier finds it difficult to speak in media-friendly sound bites, preferring measured statements with elliptical German sentences that trail off far from where they started.

More a civil servant than a glad-handing politician, his charm works better in smaller, relaxed contexts where his dimpled smile and genuine interest in people can be used to the fullest.

"I never intended to become a politician," the prematurely white-haired Steinmeier told glossy magazine Bunte. "These things just happen sometimes."

Fit to lead?

A born diplomat, Steinmeier has found it difficult to hone the killer instincts needed on the campaign trail.

Born January 5, 1956 in a small town in Lower Saxony, Steinmeier was known on the football field as an efficient "all-rounder" who could play any position with ease and work well within a team.

The same qualities led Schroeder to take him under his wing, first as media advisor when he was premier of Lower Saxony and later as a state secretary at the chancellery until making him his chief of staff in 1999.

He took over the foreign ministry in November 2005, and has repeatedly had to defend his remit against Merkel's encroachment.

Berlin : Paintings by German artist Bernhard Prinz featuring German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are on show at the Art salon in Berlinon 22 September 2009.

They clashed openly about Russia and China, with Steinmeier warning against alienating either country with too strident criticism and famously accusing her of pursuing a foreign policy comprised of "window-dressing."

Steinmeier has tried to bolster Germany's "soft power" with cultural diplomacy, frequently inviting painters, musicians and novelists to join him on official visits abroad.

But journalist Tom Ockers, who trailed him for a year for a profile for public television, said his latest incarnation as a candidate had largely flopped due to a chronic lack of charisma.

"He has no chance of shedding that image,” Ockers said. “Even if he ran through Berlin naked people would say, 'That guy is boring.'"

Married with a daughter, Steinmeier is protective of his private life although his wife Elke Buedenbender, a judge, has stepped up her public appearances since her husband announced he would stand for office.

Deborah Cole/AFP/Expatica

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