Merkel rival causes middle-finger storm

2013-09-12 22:46

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Berlin - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief election rival sparked a storm of derision and online ridicule on Thursday by allowing himself to be photographed making the vulgar middle-finger gesture.

The unflattering black-and-white studio portrait of Peer Steinbrueck in suit and tie hit the cover of the weekly magazine supplement of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily's Friday edition.

Long before the magazine was to hit news stands, the image of the 66-year-old flipping the bird while sneering into the lens went viral online, with attacks raining down from politicians and in the Twittersphere ahead of the 22 September vote.

"This gesture is unacceptable for a chancellor candidate," said Economy Minister Philipp Roesler of the Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition allies. "Something like that is just not on."

On Twitter under the tag #stinkefinger (middle-finger) one writer said: "Steinbrueck's middle-finger seemed to say: 'Goodbye then, you election wankers.' At least he's getting a totally awesome exit."

Another judged the gesture as "diggin' for street credibility" while a third wrote: "Unbelievable! It's not a fake! I can't imagine a chancellor like that."

A new account, @peersfinger, said: "I can count the chance of victory on the fingers of one hand".

The image of the gaffe-prone Social Democrat candidate was taken for a photo-essay format called "Don't Say Anything Now" in which subjects are asked to respond non-verbally to questions.

The gesture by the self-styled "straight-talk" politician came in response to a question over his campaign missteps, including causing offence in Italy by calling former premier Silvio Berlusconi a "clown".

The question was: "Pannen (mishap) Peer, Problem Peer, Peerlusconi - you don't have to worry about a shortage of nicknames, do you?"

Bad move

Steinbrueck Thursday defended himself on Twitter, writing that "straight talk doesn't always require words - for example when you keep being asked about old-hat stories instead of really important questions".

If Steinbrueck had recently revived his limping campaign with a strong TV debate performance against popular Merkel, the middle-finger picture was likely to spell a serious setback.

It stood in stark contrast to Merkel being portrayed on the cover of Friday's Economist magazine on a pedestal overlooking European landmarks with the headline "One woman to rule them all".

Sueddeutsche itself commented that had Steinbrueck made the offensive gesture in a public place, he would have faced a fine of €600 to €4 000.

It said that, given all the bad press that has haunted his campaign, Steinbrueck's "frustration is understandable".

But the newspaper was in no doubt about the impact of the photo on the chances of the former finance minister, saying "the middle-finger photo, days before the election, is unlikely to help dispell the notion".

The paper also said online that the centre-left candidate's spokesperson, ex-journalist Rolf Kleine, had suggested the photo not be published, but that Steinbrueck had overruled him, saying "no, it's OK".

Kleine was quoted as saying the candidate's gesture may have been "a little too spontaneous". He then told news portal Spiegel Online the picture was taken several weeks ago and insisted: "I don't see a problem. Why should there be a problem?"

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked, "Risky calculation or just another, perhaps decisive, faux-pas shortly before the election?"

The Social Democrats' state chairman for Schleswig-Holstein, Ralf Stegner - like some Tweeters - defended Steinbrueck in view of the media treatment he had received, said news site Focus Online.

Steinbrueck's run for the top job started under a cloud when the standard bearer of working-class Germany had to apologise for earning €1.25m on the lecture circuit.

The perception of a candidate disconnected from the people was fuelled by his complaint that the chancellor's salary is too low, and that he would not drink a bottle of Pinot Grigio wine that cost just five euros.

Merkel, who has had a personal approval lead of 20 to 30% points over her rival, this week said that she "enjoyed [Steinbrueck's] sense of humour".

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