Steinbrueck Giving Finger to Critics Stirs German Ballot Debate

Peer Steinbrueck, the Social Democrat trying to unseat Angela Merkel as German chancellor, drew controversy by striking a vulgar pose in the cover photo of a popular magazine, deriding his critics nine days before voters go the ballot box.

The SPD candidate, who trails Merkel by more than 10 points in election polls, is shown on the front page of Sueddeutsche Zeitung Magazin extending his middle finger as part of the publication’s regular photo series known as “Don’t Say Anything Now.” The weekly magazine with 1 million readers poses questions in a format that calls on the interviewee to respond with gestures, which are then captured on photo.

Steinbrueck, 66, whose election campaign has been riddled by gaffes and blunders, was responding to the question: “You’re called Mishap Peer, Problem Peer, Peerlusconi -- you’ve got no worries about being given nice nicknames? Seven other photos in the interview include one of him grinning with an unbuttoned shirt in response to: ‘‘A question of style: Do you wear an undershirt?” Another shows him pointing both index fingers at himself with a “who, me?” expression in answer to: “Only 26 percent would vote for the SPD. Are you to blame?”

“This is going to hurt him,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said in a phone interview. “Steinbrueck likes to be the rogue candidate but he’s lost touch with what’s appropriate for someone who wants to be chancellor. The suicidal gene of the German Social Democrats is still in place.”

Campaign Gaffes

Jarmila Schneider, an SPD spokeswoman, said the photos were authorized and are genuine. Steinbrueck endorsed the series on his Twitter Inc. account, writing: “You don’t always need words to tell it like it is. As in when you’re constantly being bombarded with old hat instead of the questions that matter.”

“I think we should all have a bit of humor in an election campaign,” Steinbrueck said on N-TV today. “Those who don’t should go into the basement to laugh.”

Steinbrueck, who was Merkel’s finance minister in her first term of office from 2005 to 2009, has made waves since being nominated as the SPD chancellor candidate late last year.

He drew anger from members of the SPD, a party with its roots in the 19th century labor movement, with repeated comments focused on his own wallet. The Social Democrat also said he avoids wine that costs less than 5 euros ($6.64) a bottle and that the chancellor’s salary of 220,000 euros a year is too low.

In a campaign he described as starting out badly, he declared he had earned 1.25 million euros by giving 89 speeches since 2009 at companies and banks including Deutsche Bank AG and JP Morgan Chase & Co. He also said he gave 237 non-paid speeches since leaving the finance ministry.

‘Money Talk’

“He has not stopped talking about money, his money and whether he has an erotic relationship to money,” said Daniel Friedrich Sturm, who published a Steinbrueck biography last year. “This has cost him sympathy.”

The SPD campaign program is aimed at narrowing the income divide in Germany, with proposals to increase taxes for high-income earners and to expand affordable housing and all-day elementary schools.

Steinbrueck, speaking in an ARD television town-hall style interview on Sept. 11, defended his party’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund Germany’s “dilapidated” infrastructure and underfunded local governments. The SPD plans to raise the top income tax rate to 49 percent from 45 percent.

“Not everybody should pay more, but some should pay a little more,” Steinbrueck said at the time.

Frontline Role

Steinbrueck played a frontline role as finance minister in fighting the global financial crisis and remains a staunch opponent of tax evasion. In 2010, he published a book entitled “Unterm Strich” (The Bottom Line), with detailed policy recommendations on how to deal with crisis aftermath.

“Steinbrueck always complains that nobody wants to talk about the serious things he wants to talk about, but always gives reasons to talk about other things,” said Manfred Guellner, managing director of the Forsa polling company. “It’s not the evil media which have painted that picture of him.”

The photos were “just another in a series of ineptitudes he’s committed that have become the talk of the town,” Guellner said. “His main problem is that he’s very convinced of himself and has lost all sensitivity. As a citizen, not as a pollster, I say that I would have the greatest concerns if he became chancellor because he is so uncontrolled. I look at this with horror.”

German news magazine Focus published a cover story on Jan. 7 with a photo-montage of Steinbrueck as a bloodied boxer titled: “The chaos-candidate -- has Steinbrueck knocked himself out?” News magazine Der Spiegel on the same day ran a cover-story titled: “Why does Steinbrueck make so many mistakes?

Female Voters

Steinbrueck himself has admitted that some of his comments have not been very fortunate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD’s parliamentary leader, told reporters at a party retreat in Potsdam Jan. 28. Steinmeier said the German public should return to discussing the SPD’s themes of social justice, “which are also Steinbrueck’s themes.”

Steinbrueck’s comments on gender are also seen as hampering his effort to topple the country’s first woman leader and attract female voters.

In an effort to explain Merkel’s popularity, he said she profits from a “woman’s bonus,” in a Dec. 29 interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. Female voters are impressed “Merkel made it in a man’s world, seems unpretentious and has a modest appearance,” he is cited as saying.

Teared Up

He teared up at a June 16 party event that sought to display his compassionate side, overcome by emotion when his wife Gertrud defended him by saying the politician pilloried in the German media for his gaffes isn’t the man she knows.

The SPD trails Merkel’s Christian Democrat bloc in the race to the Sept. 22 elections, according to Germany’s seven leading polling agencies. Merkel’s bloc stands at 39 percent to 41 percent, compared with 25 percent to 28 percent for the SPD.

The Free Democrats, Merkel’s current coalition partner with whom she wants to ally again after the vote, are at 4 percent to 6 percent, while the SPD’s Greens ally is at 9 percent to 12.5 percent.

Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Philipp Roesler, the FDP’s chairman, condemned the SZ-Magazin’s photo.

“The gesture is a no-no for a chancellor candidate,” Roesler is cited by Deutsche Presse-Agentur as saying.

A top candidate of the Greens party, with whom Steinbrueck wants to form a coalition, said it was unclear at whom Steinbrueck was expressing his derision.

“It wouldn’t be my style,” said Katrin Goering-Eckardt, the co-leading Greens candidate, as quoted in an interview with broadcaster MDR.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.