Steinbrueck: a straight-shooter aiming for Germany's top job

28th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

Peer Steinbrueck, who will challenge Angela Merkel as head of Europe's top economy in next year's election, is seen as a prickly but bright politician who shot to fame as Germany's finance minister by her side.

The 65-year-old father-of-three from Hamburg, northern Germany, who won plaudits for his handling of the 2008 financial crisis, now has the uphill task of stopping the world's most powerful woman winning a third term.

Burly and bespectacled, Steinbrueck has an abrasive manner that should stand him in good stead when battling the German chancellor on the hustings and energise the campaign for the election to be held in September or October 2013.

Voters recently had a taste of his fiery debating style in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, notably when he accused Merkel of doing the "dance of the seven veils" on saving Greece and challenging her to "tell it how it is."

He has also vowed to spice up the occasionally drab world of German politics, saying: "This should not be a boring election campaign. This should not be a humourless campaign. There must be fun and a few jokes."

And showing his tough side in the same speech, he blasted Merkel's administration as "maybe the worst cabinet in the history of the federal republic."

But he has an uphill task ahead of him, with opinion polls suggesting Merkel's conservatives enjoy a significant lead over his Social Democrats (SPD), which has found it difficult to dent her popularity.

He has not been helped by a rocky start to his campaign, first being accused of using his influence when finance minister to gain sponsorship for a chess match, then admitting he earned 1.25 million euros ($1.61 million) for speeches.

Seen as being on the right of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, Steinbrueck will have to work hard even to persuade his own party faithful to back him, said political analyst Gerd Langguth.

"He will try to pull together the different wings of the party, especially the left wing. His problem for the campaign is that he doesn't have the whole party behind him," he said.

Seeking to appeal to the left, he has already tabled plans for stricter regulation of banks and a rescue pot for fresh bankruptcies, funded by compulsory contributions.

--- Former 'Dream Team' now rivals ---

During his stint in Merkel's coalition cabinet, the trained economist worked closely with her to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis caused by the 2008 collapse of US bank Lehman Brothers, and enjoyed a high international profile.

Many in financial circles considered them the "dream team" to lead Germany out of the crisis.

It was "his biggest political act", said one of his biographers, Daniel Friedrich Sturm. He acted with "composure, assurance and determination" to put out the fires, said the author.

Like Merkel, "he analyses situations soberly, understands everything very quickly and has a slightly cynical sense of humour," he added.

Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, also said Steinbrueck's style was similar to that of Merkel's, although more dynamic.

"If Merkel is often described as hesitant, Steinbrueck is a man of action," said Neugebauer.

But his sense of humour has at times landed him in hot water and led to one newspaper dubbing him the "most hated man in Switzerland" after he compared the Swiss to "Indians" during a bitter tax row between the two neighbours.

Perceived as fiscally conservative, he also lashed out at British plans to slash VAT and boost debt as "crass" and "breathtaking," forcing him to back-pedal furiously amid London's diplomatic fury at his unwanted interference.

His off-the-cuff comments to journalists have also prompted unintended consequences.

During a period of volatility on the foreign exchange markets, Steinbrueck joked: "I love cash and I love a strong euro," causing pandemonium on trading floors worldwide, as twitchy analysts interpreted the joke as acceptance of a high exchange rate.

A sociable man, who enjoys the occasional cigar and whose briefings to journalists over a few beers have been known to extend late into the night, he was said to have good relations with Merkel when they worked together.

He quipped that he hopes to have a glass of wine with her after he wins the campaign, to toast her years as chancellor.

SPD supporters will hope that his campaign follows the example of his favourite animal, the rhinoceros.

"It starts very slowly but when it gets going, nothing can stop it," says Steinbrueck.

© 2012 AFP

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