Scandal-hit German minister pulls out of election team

30th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has found herself in a political maelstrom after she had her driver travel more than 2,600 kilometres in her official car at public expense so she could use it while on holiday in Spain.

Berlin -- The minister at the heart of a scandal rocking Germany's embattled Social Democrats said Wednesday she would not be in her party's shadow cabinet to avoid hobbling its election chances in September.

Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has found herself in a political maelstrom after she had her driver travel more than 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) in her official car at public expense so she could use it while on holiday in Spain.

The 90,000-euro (132,000-dollar) Mercedes S-class car was then stolen last week, unleashing attacks over what was called a waste of taxpayers' money during a biting economic crisis, and calls for Schmidt to resign.

Schmidt, 60, spoke of a "campaign" against her and said she would provide documentation to prove that her use of the official car in Spain was in fact in the taxpayers' interest because she was also conducting official business.

But she said the media frenzy created by the issue had left her no choice but to withdraw from the team of her SPD party's candidate for chancellor, Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"It is important to me that the SPD is strong and I want Frank-Walter Steinmeier to become chancellor of this republic and I will do everything to ensure this campaign does not damage the election chances of the SPD," she said.

Speaking to reporters earlier, Steinmeier said the minister could have no place in the shadow cabinet while the affair raged on.

"We agreed that she should not be a member of this team until these accusations have been completely cleared up," he said.

Schmidt, whose popularity has already suffered over tough health care reforms introduced in recent years, attended a handful of political events while in Spain.

She has argued it was more "economical" to have her driver bring the car to Spain than to rent a vehicle locally and that she would pay back expenses incurred for her private use of the car according to government guidelines.

The timing could hardly be worse for the SPD, which is trailing Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc by around 15 points in the polls before the September 27 election.

Steinmeier sought to bring attention back to the presentation of the party's shadow cabinet scheduled for Thursday, which he hopes to use to claw back ground on the high-flying conservatives.

"We will show you that we have not only the best people, we have the best ideas and we know how to bring this country forward in the next few years," he said.

But the front pages of the newspapers continued to concentrate on the car scandal. "Minister, this stinks to high heaven!" the mass-market daily Bild screamed on its front page Tuesday.

The Taxpayers' Association, a pressure group, estimated the cost of the Mercedes trip at nearly at "at least 9,386 euros" to cover fuel, wear and tear on the official car, road tolls and the driver's expenses.

"What Frau Schmidt did is obscene," member of parliament Frank Schaeffler of the opposition pro-business Free Democrats told Wednesday's edition of Bild.

"She has been anything but fair to the taxpayer and should step down."

However, the ministry hit back Wednesday, estimating the cost of the trip at around 3,200 euros and reiterating that it was cheaper than hiring a car locally.

Meanwhile, the Mercedes at the centre of the scandal has turned up in Spain, Schmidt's spokeswoman said earlier.

"The official car is back," said a spokeswoman for the German federal police force in the western city of Wiesbaden.

She declined to provide further details but the daily Rheinische Post said the car was found late Tuesday near Alicante in good condition.

AFP/Expatica

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