In Germany, Merkel's Main Rival Appears to Stumble From Gaffe to Gaffe

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BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger in next year's election may have already blurted out his own "binders full of women" gaffe early in the German campaign.

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor, said in an interview in the Sunday edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that "Angela Merkel is popular because she gets a women's bonus."

The undiplomatic comment provoked immediate criticism, but it was only the latest in a series of stumbles that have plagued Mr. Steinbrück's effort to unseat Ms. Merkel. Mr. Steinbrück has already been forced to spend the past three months defending himself over the $1.65 million he received on the lecture circuit over the past three years.

Those earnings made his calls for higher pay for the German chancellor, which appeared in the same interview, all the more perplexing. Spiegel Online, the popular Web site of the influential magazine, said Sunday that Mr. Steinbrück "stumbles from mishap to mishap."

"Through and through a problem candidate," said an op-ed on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Web site Sunday, under the headline "He Can't Do It." Mr. Steinbrück was running "a perfect campaign," according to the article, "for the opponent."

The German election is expected to be held in September, assuming the governing coalition holds together until then.

Unseating Ms. Merkel was always going to be an uphill battle. She is one of Germany's most beloved politicians, enjoying high personal approval ratings and broad recognition domestically for her handling of the euro crisis. Various polls show Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats holding a comfortable lead over the Social Democrats.

The challenger needed to shake things up, but maybe not the way Mr. Steinbrück has.

Mr. Steinbrück was popular with voters as the outspoken finance minister in Ms. Merkel's government from 2005 to 2009, when the two major parties joined forces in what is known as a "grand coalition" government. That made it difficult for either party to attack the other when it came time to face the voters.

The surprisingly restrained race in 2009 was jokingly called "more duet than duel" as Ms. Merkel and her mild-mannered vice chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, engaged in a bloodless campaign. The Christian Democrats cruised to victory, in large part on Ms. Merkel's popularity. The Social Democrats suffered their worst showing since World War II, winning just 23 percent of the vote.

Determined to avoid a repeat, the Social Democrats in September nominated the pugnacious Mr. Steinbrück. Never one to mince words, Mr. Steinbrück once called on other European countries to "use the whip" on Switzerland over its tax havens, likening the Swiss to "Indians running scared from the cavalry."

Mr. Steinbrück has accused Ms. Merkel of vacillating in the euro crisis and letting European partners suffer to advance her popularity at home. In an address before the German Parliament, Mr. Steinbrück said Ms. Merkel made "a grave mistake" when her coalition launched "a bullying campaign against Greece's membership in the euro zone."

But Ms. Merkel has benefited at home from the ever more important role she has assumed in Europe, and her image as the "iron chancellor" has also appealed to voters who want to see Germany remain firm with countries seeking bailouts.

In her New Year's address, Ms. Merkel warned that the European debt crisis was "far from over." She called for "continued patience," saying, "the reforms we've passed are beginning to have an impact." In a transcript released early Monday, she pointed to the lowest level of unemployment since German reunification more than two decades ago and said that meant "many hundreds of thousands of families have a secure future."

Asked in the newspaper interview published Sunday how he planned to overcome such a popular opponent, Mr. Steinbrück pointed out that he was pretty popular himself. But then he made his statement about the "women's bonus."

"A large share of female voters recognize how she has asserted herself in her party and beyond that in Europe for a long time," he said. "That is not my disadvantage but her advantage."

"Frauenbonus" or "women's bonus" quickly began trending on Twitter. The choice of the word "bonus" was particularly injudicious, given the criticism over his speaking fees. In another memorably odd line in the interview, Mr. Steinbrück said he did not find money "erotic."

Mr. Steinbrück is hardly the first politician to earn speaking fees, but the sum raised eyebrows, particularly in a left-leaning party whose members still call each other "comrade" at official events. And it made his calls for higher pay for the chancellor all the more surprising.

With reports showing a shrinking German middle class, a raise for the chancellor, who currently receives about $390,000 a year in total compensation, would not seem like a particularly winning campaign issue. In the interview he pointed out that many bank managers earned more than the head of Germany's government.

Gerhard Schröder, the last Social Democratic chancellor, told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that "anyone who doesn't feel like the pay is enough can always look for another career."

Mr. Steinbrück, for his part, said he was "not going to take part in some kind of coaching where you learn to collect points for being beloved."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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