BERLIN : Germany’s Social Democrats leader Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel’s next vice chancellor, is a canny political operator whose aim will be to shift government policy to the left.
As head of a new economy and energy “super ministry”, he will also be tasked with steering Germany’s ambitious transition from nuclear to renewable power while containing its cost.
Gabriel, 54, led tough negotiations with Merkel’s conservatives on forging their left-right coalition and used a high-stakes gamble to win key concessions, including a national minimum wage. As they haggled over their power pact, Gabriel allowed his sceptical party members to vote on whether to govern with Merkel or stay in opposition, an all-or-nothing gambit that paid off.
As a result, the former teacher from the left wing of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) has snatched a personal victory from the jaws of the party’s devastating defeat in September elections.
While the SPD candidate in that vote, Peer Steinbrueck, has all but vanished from view, Gabriel will now play a key role in Merkel’s third-term government for Europe’s biggest economy.
Many expect the unlikely partners are headed for a bumpy ride.
Gabriel, a good orator known to often shoot from the hip, has harshly criticised Merkel in the past and is expected to do so again as the next elections near, expected in 2017.
Blasting her drive for fiscal belt-tightening in crisis-hit eurozone countries, Gabriel compared Merkel to “a skinflint aunt clutching her handbag” who was refusing to help out neighbours.
The stocky father of two has first-hand experience of a Merkel cabinet.
He served as environment minister in the 2005-2009 grand coalition between her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD, in what proved a loveless forerunner to the latest tie-up.
From within Merkel’s cabinet, Gabriel faces the challenge of breathing new life into his 150-year-old party after it suffered its second worst trouncing at the polls since the war.
It is a difficult balancing act as many members of the party, which traditionally stands for the values of Germany’s working class, had been reluctant to again govern in the shadow of Merkel.
Under the previous grand coalition, the SPD was overshadowed by her conservatives who took credit for government successes.
When Gabriel was elected head of the party in 2009, he sought to rally the troops after morale plummeted following its worst-ever showing of 23 percent at the ballot box.
“Our SPD is in a catastrophic situation,” Gabriel said at the time and embarked on a plan to better integrate the party base into decision-making while attempting to be closer to voters.
On his watch, the SPD has pushed to soften the impact of its own Agenda 2010 raft of tough labour and welfare reforms, instigated by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder from 2003.
He imposed a marked left-of-centre programme during the last elections and successfully pushed for a national minimum wage which had been the SPD’s deal-breaker in the negotiations.
Nevertheless Gabriel did not succeed in raising the party’s fortunes at the national level and it scored 25.7 percent in September.
But the party’s debacle was laid squarely at the door of ex-finance minister Steinbrueck, who ran a gaffe-prone campaign.
Gabriel, at times, appears to spontaneously pull new ideas out of his hat, such as a call for a 120-kilometre (75-mile) per hour motorway speed limit in a country passionate about its cars.
Born September 12, 1959 in the northern town of Goslar, he had a complicated childhood, which he revealed in a 2012 book that detailed his difficult relationship with his father who remained a convinced Nazi even after the war.
Gabriel, who is a bicycle fan and likes sailing, has two daughters, one grown-up and the other aged one, from his second marriage.