* Social Democrats lag Merkel ahead of Sept. 22 election
* Steinbrueck was finance minister in 05-09 grand coalition
* Hampered by Merkel's position in political middle ground
By Stephen Brown
BERLIN, June 13 The centre-left candidate for
German chancellor in September's election, Peer Steinbrueck,
dismissed Angela Merkel's opinion poll lead on Thursday and said
she had lulled the country into a false sense of security.
With 100 days to go until the Sept. 22 election when Merkel
will seek a third term, the struggling Social Democrat (SPD)
candidate told foreign correspondents the contest would not be
decided until the last few weeks of the campaign.
"The election will be decided in the last six weeks, because
the German electorate is volatile and many people make up their
minds in the last seven to 10 days if and for whom they are
going to vote," he said.
"It's true that Frau Merkel's popularity ratings are very
high but it's also true that the poll ratings for her government
are down in the basement," said Steinbrueck, whose party is some
15 percentage points behind the conservatives in opinion polls.
"Merkel tries to tell the German public 'don't worry,
nothing has happened, everything is okay, just go to sleep, I'll
take care of it and when you wake up it will all be okay'," he
said, raising the pitch of his voice as if to imitate her.
While about six out of 10 people say in polls they would
choose Merkel if Germany elected its chancellor directly, rather
than via the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), Steinbrueck
gets under 20 percent support.
The SPD knows that, to have a chance of unseating Merkel
rather than just hoping to be her junior partner as it was in
2005-2009, it must mobilise supporters who did not bother to
vote in 2009, when the SPD scored its worst result in post-war
history at 23 percent.
"Since our election victory under Gerhard Schroeder in 1998
the SPD managed to lose about eight or nine million voters,"
Steinbrueck said. Most of those had not defected to other
parties, but were in a "waiting room" for non-voters, he said.
Steinbrueck's campaign got off to a bad start. His sardonic
humour and high earnings as an after-dinner speaker failed to
impress the traditional working-class support base of the SPD
and his moderate policies alienated the party's left wing.
Steinbrueck, who served as finance minister in Merkel's
2005-2009 'grand coalition' government with the SPD, finds it
difficult to differentiate his policy proposals from hers.
SPD platforms such as a legal minimum wage or protection for
tenants have been purloined by Merkel, as has the anti-nuclear
power platform of the SPD's Greens allies.
"Merkel continues to define the centre ground broadly and
keeps stepping into territory that traditionally belongs to the
centre left," wrote Eurasia analyst Famke Krumbmueller.
The SPD's attempts to attack Merkel are hamstrung by its
support for her government on the euro zone crisis and by the
resilience of the German economy under her leadership, with
unemployment at its lowest since reunification.
Apart from complaining that "there are 7.5 million workers
in Germany who earn than less than 8 euros ($10.67) a day",
Steinbrueck has limited room for manoeuvre beyond promising to
put more money into education by taxing the wealthy.
"Ninety-five percent of German citizens won't be affected by
our tax proposals," he said, mocking reports by
"conservative-oriented business newspapers that the 'cold hand
of Socialism' wants to dip its hands into their pockets".
Often acknowledging the respect he feels for Merkel from
when they worked together in the financial crisis, Steinbrueck's
criticisms tend to be abstract, such as saying Germany has been
"governed beneath its value" by the centre right since 2009.