Future of ailing German finance minister uncertain

10th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble's latest stay in hospital is raising serious questions about how much longer Chancellor Angela Merkel can depend on one of her most trusted lieutenants.

Schaeuble, 68, was taken to hospital last week for a four-week stay to be treated for bedsores, a common and potentially serious problem for people who, like the minister, are paraplegics.

Including this period, the man running the finances of Europe's biggest economy, confined to a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1990, will have spent three months in hospital this year alone.

Early this year, he had surgery to install a system to regulate his digestive tract but the incisions have not healed well and were complicated by bedsores.

In May, an allergic reaction to new medication meant Schaeuble had to be taken to hospital during a make-or-break European summit just as Greece's debt problems pushed the 16-nation eurozone to the brink of collapse.

This left Joerg Asmussen, highly regarded but a civil servant by training and a member of the opposition Social Democrats to boot, to represent Germany's interests in Brussels.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Merkel's trusted chief of staff in her first term, was rushed in. Reportedly a military transport plane had to come and get him from a hiking break in the back of beyond.

Asmussen is replacing him in Washington at the International Monetary Fund's annual meeting this weekend, a get-together dominated by talk of a damaging global currency war.

At the upcoming meeting of the Group of 20 emerging and developed economies in South Korea, meanwhile, Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle will stand in for Schaeuble.

Schaueuble has a wealth of experience, having risen through the ranks to be former chancellor Helmut Kohl's chief of staff and one-time heir apparent and hold several ministerial positions.

Any ambition for the top job was scuppered though by his involvement in a murky party financing scandal that all but destroyed Kohl's reputation in the 1990s, leaving Schaeuble in the political wilderness for years.

But he made a comeback in 2005 when Merkel was elected chancellor, first as interior minister and since October in his present job.

The German government insists that Schaeuble can continue to do his job from his hospital bed, even giving interviews to the media in his pyjamas.

But serious questions are starting to be asked. Not only have his absences at important international gatherings raised eyebrows, Schaeuble is also meant to be balancing Germany's books after the worst recession since World War II.

Last week, speculation rose to fever pitch after Stern magazine reported that Schaeuble had offered to resign but that Merkel had persuaded him to stay on, or at least to think it over.

At a regular government briefing, his spokesman Michael Offer did his best to fend off a barrage of questions.

Then his telephone beeped -- a message from the bedridden minister instructing the spokesman to refute the report -- Schaeuble had "neither offered his resignation nor talked about a delay for reflection," he said.

But if Schaeuble has any more enforced absences, "resigning would be the right decision," the Financial Times Deutschland said in an editorial.

© 2010 AFP

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