Skip to main content

Peer Steinbrueck: The man who stirred up German politics

September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Peer Steinbrueck, the social democrat Chancellor candidate and<a href=''> Angela Merkel</a>'s main challenger, hands out roses to well-wishers in German town of Peine on September 16, 2013. Peer Steinbrueck, the social democrat Chancellor candidate and Angela Merkel's main challenger, hands out roses to well-wishers in German town of Peine on September 16, 2013.
In pictures: Peer Steinbrueck
Schroeder's ally
With his former boss
Finance minister
Election gaffes
Can he make it?
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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."

Ja, wir koennen! Can American-style campaign work in Germany?

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.

Interactive: Who is running in German election?

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

Is there an alternative for Germany?
German election debate

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.

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.

Could euroskeptics spoil Angela Merkel's election party?

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."

Is Germany playing beggar-my-neighbor with the eurozone?

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.

Angela Merkel: Europe's Mrs. Nein

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.

Part of complete coverage on
German election
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Chancellor Angela Merkel is used to saying no. She is widely liked in Germany but hated in the troubled countries of the eurozone.
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
In the quiet world of German politics, outspoken Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrueck is causing something of a storm.
September 18, 2013 -- Updated 1240 GMT (2040 HKT)
Germany's voters will cast their ballots this weekend to decide who will lead the country as it grapples with its leading role in the Euro crisis.
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
German campaigns are using strategies from the U.S. to make politics more exciting. But can American-style politicking work on German voters?
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
CDU, SPD, FD... with more than 30 parties running, German politics can get overwhelming. Here is our interactive guide to the top candidates.
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
So you thought the German election was boring? Think again. Jokes poking fun at the candidates have flooded the internet. We bring you the best.
Ahead of the polls in Germany, CNN invited the country's six leading parties to take part in an innovative, snappy social media debate.
September 19, 2013 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
Fake euro notes are thrown onto a fire at a rally for Germany's anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD) at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
When German voters go to the polls this weekend, they have two new parties to choose from. Could anti-euro campaign derail the single currency?
September 19, 2013 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
A person wearing an Angela Merkel mask throws fake euros into a fire at an election rally by anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in front of the Brandenburg Gate on September 16, 2013.
With the financial crisis in the eurozone, Germany finds itself in a position that everybody seems to envy, except the Germans themselves.
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
A museum in Germany asked the major parties to create their version of the future. The result? Giant zeros, EU flags and traditional lederhosen.
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1031 GMT (1831 HKT)
If successful in winning a third term, by 2016 Merkel will have become the longest-serving elected female head of government in history.
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 0626 GMT (1426 HKT)
When in Bavaria, do as the Bavarians do. Drink beer, eat wurst and don't worry about looking ridiculous in lederhosen: everyone does.
Germany, of course, will remain the central player in deciding the future of Europe's crisis response. What change can the election bring?
September 1, 2013 -- Updated 2302 GMT (0702 HKT)
CNN's Diana Magnay gives an update on the only scheduled debate ahead of Germany's national election.
August 27, 2013 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
German Finance Minister says the eurozone's problems are not solved, but "we are in a much better shape than we used to be some years ago."
August 29, 2013 -- Updated 0155 GMT (0955 HKT)
CNN's Diana Magnay reports on comments made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel about Greece's impact on the EU.
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
German leadership is required and president Obama needs to persuade Germany to take the lead in world affairs, writes Sudha David-Wilp.