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Politics

Merkel challenger bids farewell to politics

Opinion polls were against Peer Steinbrück, Germany's Social Democratic candidate for chancellor from the start. Now, Merkel's former challenger has announced his retirement from politics.

At a SPD party caucus on Friday, Steinbrück said his "career would find an orderly end." Moments later, Merkel's challenger for chancellor said he would not seek any posts in the SPD's front row. Before his election defeat, Steinbrück had said, if he lost the German general election he would not seek any post in a coalition government with a Chancellor Merkel.

Peer Steinbrück at the time dismissed plans for a grand coalition, saying he would not participate in a coalition with Merkel's CDU. On the other hand, he had always stressed it was important that democratic parties were ready to join forces with others. But Steinbrück's SPD had been fighting for a coalition with the Greens right from the start. The 66-year-old economics graduate kept ignoring polls painting a gloomy picture of his candidacy. He simply carried on with his campaign even when he was blamed for mistakes and his supposedly negative traits.

Steinbrück demonstrated early on that giving up is not an option. When he was a student in school, his math results were poor; he even had to repeat two years before passing his school exam. Still, he went on to succeed and worked his way up through the ranks: from chancellery aide via positions in various government agencies and ministries, to state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, and eventually to a federal minister post in a grand coalition comprising the CDU and SPD from 2005-2009.

Working relationship with Merkel

Steinbrück and Merkel had a close working relationship. When the economic crisis came to a head in 2009, people threatened to storm the German banks and withdraw all their savings. Merkel and Steinbrück saved the day with an impressive joint appearance, reassuring the public that their money was safe.

In this screenshot taken from German television German Chancellor and Christian Democrat (CDU) Angela Merkel and Social Democrats (SPD) chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck debate (photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The television debate between Merkel and Steinbrück was seen as a draw

However, Steinbrück also championed many financial instruments before the crisis that later proved controversial, such as the practice of property investors packaging bad loans and selling them.

While campaigning against Merkel, Steinbrück said he didn't plan on reliving this partnership. "I don't want this anymore. We are just the useful idiot for one another."

Political handicaps

Steinbrück's style tends to be described as rough, didactic and not very diplomatic. He is often very direct and says exactly what he thinks. His choice of phrase when he threatened to "send in the cavalry against Switzerland" over its refusal to share data on tax evasion, for example, caused quite a diplomatic flurry. He likes to see himself as someone who gets things done, but a side-effect of this, according to colleagues, is that he can be very impatient.

While still premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Steinbrück was a supporter of the so-called "Agenda 2010." These were the drastic reforms with which then-Chancellor and SPD leader Gerhard Schröder aimed to transform the labor market and lower unemployment levels. Reductions in state benefits and requirements for people to take on greater personal responsibility in the event of unemployment were supported by measures that extended the low-wage sector and made it easier for companies to employ people on temporary or limited contracts.

The reforms were passed and Germany did indeed experience a kind of employment miracle - for which the subsequent Merkel government has taken much of the credit. The reforms have not, however, helped Steinbrück in the popularity stakes. Many employers did take advantage of the new regulations, and the dark side of the employment statistic is that around 20 percent of all employees in Germany now earn barely enough to live on.

Steinbrück now acknowledges that "something went decidedly wrong." He has warned that "society is threatening to drift apart," and says he wants to act swiftly to do something about it. He is promoting a social market economy that will put the focus back on the common good. However, critics say his political about-face, which included his sudden espousal of social causes, like a national minimum wage, was not very credible.

Katrin Goering-Eckart of Germany's environmental party Die Gruenen (The Greens) and Chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic party (SPD) Peer Steinbrueck (photo: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz)

Steinbrück ideally wanted to form a coalition with the Greens

Steinbrück is from a well-to-do family from Hamburg in Germany's north and can come across as elitist, which observers say is one reason why his pronouncements lacked credibility with the public.

Former chancellor Willy Brandt as a role model

Steinbrück decided to join the SPD at the age of 20. He looked up to Willy Brandt, who impressed the young Steinbrück with his "Ostpolitik," West Germany's policies toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Steinbrück still quotes Brandt today, saying "You have to fight for everything. Nothing can be taken for granted" when referring to his own political work ethics.

But when the Social Democrats lost the elections in 2009, it seemed as if Steinbrück had given up fighting. He became an ordinary member of parliament again, and announced his withdrawal from high-level politics. He wrote a successful book about his time in government, accepted honorary professorships at universities, and commanded high fees as a guest speaker. In 2010 it appeared that he had no intention of returning to high office. But he made a comeback in 2013 when the SPD announced his candidacy for the elections on September 22.

DW.DE