Steinbrück earned a standing ovation from over 600 delegates during the SPD’s convention in Augsberg last weekend but the party is unlikely to amass enough voters to mount a challenge to the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, by September, when the ballots open.
The SPD is traditionally one of Germany's two largest political parties, along with Merkel’s Christian union (CDU/CSU). However, its position has taken a knock over recent years, sliding from 20 million votes in 1998, under Gerhard Schröder’s leadership, to less than 10 million in 2009, according to political analysts.
The SPD’s approval ratings currently sit at 23-27%, while the CDU/CSU registers 40-41%.
“Apparently, the loss of these 10 million voters is irreversible,” said Manfred Güllner, founder of one of Germany’s leading opinion polling companies, Forsa. “If the SPD can’t manage to mobilise more voters, it will continue to stagnate at 25 or 26%,” Güllner told EurActiv.de.
The party has suffered from an image problem in recent years, with potential candidates failing to convince an economics-focussed electorate. The SPD rates low in opinion polls for economic expertise despite Steinbrück having served as former finance minister to Merkel, who voters associate with high expertise in this area.
“The only strong skill still ascribed to the SPD is social justice, but since that is a given, there’s no need to campaign on it,” Güllner said, pointing out that previous SPD social justice campaigns had failed to garner additional votes or increase voter confidence.
“They have the same misconception this time around,” he warned.
But even its guiding principles have become an issue for the SPD of late, with voters struggling to imagine Steinbrück as a spearhead of social justice. A no-nonsense tax and finance expert, they may struggle to reconcile him with the party with roots in the 19th century labour movement.
Steinbrück recently found himself the target of criticism after requesting exceptionally high speaker fees and complaining about the “low” salary of the chancellor, a comment viewed as insensitive.
As such, his popularity ratings are far behind Merkel’s. While Schröder pulled in voters to secure his chancellorship, Steinbrück may prove an obstacle for the SPD in its drive for Germany’s most coveted political position.
“However, to replace the chancellor candidate at this point doesn’t make any sense. It’s too late, and it wouldn’t change anything, to say nothing of who should be replacing Steinbrück,” Güllner said.
“The biggest issue for the SPD? There is just no mood for change in the country at the moment.” And Merkel is enjoying an usual spell of popular support, due to her handling of the euro crisis.
Following the SPD party conference, and five months before the federal elections, a continuation of the current coalition between CDU/CSU and the FDP appears realistic.
But analysts refuse to rule out a so-called black-green coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Green Party. Officially, the Green Party is opposed to one, but the prospect of power-sharing with Merkel, who is not against such a coalition, may prove persuasive.
The next option is a grand coalition, with an SPD revival as junior partner of Merkel’s party. Faced with a last-minute decision, Merkel would likely opt for a grand coalition rather than an alliance with the greens, according to EurActiv.de.
German alternative unlikely
This will also be an issue for the new opposition groups. The Pirate Party, which may have profited from the general political discontent, has few concrete policies, and appears to have lost its chance due to the behaviour of its representatives.
The Freie Wähler (Free Voters) and the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) party, founded last weekend, have tried a new tack, appealing to anti-euro sentiment.
The latest German polls say that 24% of the electorate claim they would vote for the AfD. But analysts see this as an expression of general political discontent rather than actual voter potential.
“You have to relativise this figure, which comes from a poll conducted six months before the elections, right in the middle of the Cypriot crisis,” said Jacqueline Hénard, a French essayist on Franco-German relations.
“What is more, the strongest supporters of the party, like the economist [Joachim] Starbatty, very well known in Germany, … believe that this new political group has no chance of entering the Bundestag,” Hénard told EurActiv.fr.
Germans are unlikely to vote for an overtly anti-European party, since support for the EU still remains high.
“Their biggest obstacle is even if there are problems with the euro, Germans are traditionally pro-European and see Europe as a guarantor of peace,” said Güllner. “These groups will experience the same fate as the erstwhile Pro DM party [Partei Pro Deutsche Mitte] which ultimately managed a mere 0.8%,” he said, adding: “The euro won’t play a role again this time.”
A resurgence of more extreme political parties appears unlikely. "Rather than following radicals or provoking unproductive conflict, the discontents will likely just abstain from voting,” said Güllner.
But the AfD may make a surge for the 2014 European Parliament elections.
“The risk is large that a German eurosceptic movement enters the European Parliament. Alternative for Germany could get a number of MEPs, because they are breaking a taboo in talking about these subjects,” said Hénard, a former Paris correspondent for German weekly Die Zeit.
Despite public attempts from the SPD and Steinbrück to blame Merkel for failing to avert the euro crisis, it may play to the current government’s advantage. Depictions abroad of Hitler mustaches and Nazi impersonations have only served to endear the chancellor to the German electorate.
“[They] will likely be helpful rather than damaging for Merkel,” Güllner said.