'Find Another Career': Candidate Criticized for Chancellor Salary Gaffe

Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor candidate for the center-left Social Democrats, has irritated members of his own party by demanding higher pay for the country's top position. The SPD politician also raised eyebrows by remarking that Angela Merkel enjoys a "gender bonus" that has made her more popular.

German politician Peer Steinbrück, who is running to become chancellor, argues that the country's leader should get better pay. Zoom
AP

German politician Peer Steinbrück, who is running to become chancellor, argues that the country's leader should get better pay.

After a handful of controversial remarks, some in Germany are asking if Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück is doing himself any favors with his outspoken demeanor.

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS), Steinbrück, a former finance minister, complained of poor pay for elected officials, saying that a regional director of one of Germany's Sparkassen savings banks in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia earns more than the country's leader. While the claim may be subject to debate, many are questioning Steinbrück's timing, which comes at the start of the election campaign.

Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel earned €289,986 ($382,521) in 2011. That sum will increase this year following the first raise given to the chancellor in 12 years. The Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung, citing public records, reported that the average Sparkassen director in North Rhine-Westphalia earns between €311,500 and €593,000.

Schröder: 'I Was Always Able to Live Off of It'

The comments have drawn criticism from within Steinbrück's own party. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Merkel's predecessor, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "It is my impression that politicians in Germany receive appropriate pay. At least I was always able to live off of it." He added that those who find the pay insufficient also have the option to "find another career."

In times of austerity in Europe, other politicians believe Steinbrück is sending out the wrong message. Ralf Stegner, the state leader of the SPD in Schleswig-Holstein, said increasing the chancellor's salary wasn't the "right means." Instead, he argued, government salaries should be reduced.

Within Merkel's own party, Michael Grosse-Brömer, the secretary of the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) parliamentary group, said that based on the chancellor's responsibility, the position's pay is in fact "very low." But he noted that money alone shouldn't be a reason to run for the office. "What's even more astounding about Steinbrück's oft-repeated complaints about chancellor pay is that one has never heard such complaints from the (current) chancellor," he said.

Steinbrück himself has come under fire in recent weeks for his earnings as a guest speaker at corporate events while still serving in parliament. That income has led to widespread criticism within his party, which has working-class roots, and led to calls for greater transparency in parliament about outside earnings.

A Losing Issue

Some within his party see the discussion over chancellor pay as a losing issue for the SPD as it enters a crucial election year. State elections are planned for the western state of Lower Saxony on Jan. 20, and in September Germany will hold elections for the federal parliament, the Bundestag. "You can only lose" with the issue, said the SPD's Stegner, a member of the party's left wing, even if the image that politicians earn too much is unfair. "We politicians do this voluntarily and don't need any additional incentives for elected office," he said.

In his interview, Steinbrück said: "A chancellor earns too little in Germany, measured against the ouput that he or she is expected to deliver and in relation to other jobs that have fewer responsibilities but pay much higher salaries."

Another member of the SPD also took stabs at Steinbrück's comments. "Serving as chancellor is a highly fascinating job that is not so badly paid," parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelspütz told the FAS. "It would be a mistake for politicians to orient salaries based on the private sector. Our salaries ensure that we have a good middle-class existence. We don't need more."

As for Steinbrück, he's not badly paid himself. In 2009, he reported that had made €1.25 million last year as a guest speaker. These earnings have not been uncontroversial either, particularly a transfer of €15,000 for a speech given for the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. The company had received consulting fees of €1.8 million to help draft several laws during his term as finance minister.

Merkel's Alleged 'Frauenbonus'

Steinbrück also came under fire for stating in the same interview that Merkel herself enjoys a "Frauenbonus," or gender bonus, and that she is popular as a politician because she is a woman. "Angela Merkel is popular because she has a gender bonus," he told the newspaper. "Female voters recognize to a high degree that she has long prevailed within her party and also outside of it, particularly in Europe. That's not my disadvantage, but rather her advantage."

He said she had "prevailed in a man's world and comes across as unpretentious and modest. That is also recognized by male and female voters with the SPD."

Though perhaps not intended as a direct insult to Merkel, given that the Frauenbonus slight was padded with compliments, the remarks still raised the eyebrows of some female politicians.

"I have not noticed any gender bonus for women in politics," Claudia Roth, the co-head of Germany's Green Party and an active politician for many years, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

dsl -- with wires

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