Peer Steinbrueck: The man who stirred up German politics

Story highlights

  • Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrueck is Angela Merkel's main rival in the election race
  • He served as finance minister in Angela Merkel's first coalition government from 2005 to 2009
  • The polls are predicting his party 26% of votes, he will need coalition partners if he wants to govern

In the quiet world of German politics, outspoken Social Democrat leader and Angela Merkel's main challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, is causing something of a storm.

First there was the Italian blooper: he referred to Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi as the "two clowns who have won the Italian election."

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Admittedly one of the two, Grillo, had been a successful comedian before turning to politics. But still, the comment caused Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to cancel an official engagement in Germany.

Then there was the interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, in which he claimed the German Chancellor's salary was too low for his liking -- which may not be the wisest comment if you are running for the post.

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He then raised eyebrows even further by claiming Angela Merkel was getting extra political points for being female.

And finally, there was that photograph: a portrait of the nation's would-be leader, raising his middle finger to the camera. On the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's most widely-read newspapers.

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Peer Steinbrueck's nicknames range from "Problem-Peer" to "Peerlusconi." Still, they signal an improvement from the early days of the election campaign, when only a few would have recognized him at all. Although he had served as a federal minister in the past, he is currently a rank-and-file MP. And when you're trying to get noticed, even bad publicity is better than none.

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An economist by trade, Steinbrueck grew up in Hamburg and joined the political ranks shortly after graduating from university. He is an accomplished politician, having served as Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, before moving into the federal sphere.

Merkel, his rival in the election race, was once his boss: he served as finance minister in her first government, from 2005 until 2009: as Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Eurozone crisis started to bite, his political star rose.

A sharp critic of the shadow banking system, he was responsible for Germany's bank rescue plan. "He has a reputation as an efficient manager of the fiscal crisis," writes researcher Michael Miebach. That, however, may not be viewed entirely positively by potential voters.

"He does not define himself by making overly empathetic social statements," Miebach writes. "Quite the contrary, many social democratic activists regard him as a cold-hearted, pro-business technocrat."

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In the SPD election manifesto, he does promise to establish state-wide minimum wage and increase tax rates for top earners -- proposals rejected firmly by Merkel.

But his critics argue that his promises don't come across as particularly honest, and he lacks popularity. "His public persona is [one of] perceived arrogance and [a] lack of connection with low-income households," says political scientist Patricia Hogwood.

That is not good news for his party, the SPD. With a leader perceived by many as conservative, more voters appear to be shunning the SPD in favor of the more "radically" socialist party, Die Linke.

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Observers say that throughout the campaign, Peer Steinbrueck has been everything Angela Merkel is not: cheeky, spontaneous, impulsive.

But women in particular are not amused by his style, with 70% of female voters finding the middle finger incident "very bad," according to a Forsa Institute poll. Steinbrueck and his wife Gertrud, a former teacher (the couple has three children), have given joint interviews in an effort to boost his image among women.

Moreover, his coalition past and image as a hard pro-business economist might deter the voters who are otherwise attracted to his personality.

With polls predicting his party will secure just 26% of votes, he cannot afford to lose any more support thanks to further gaffes.