Peer Steinbrück, chosen by the opposition Social Democratic Party's to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in the next general election scheduled for late autumn of next year, tried on Tuesday to end weeks of criticism of his considerable private income from speaking engagements in the last three years.
He released a full list of all the lectures he had given and gave a breakdown of the money he had been paid, which added up to 1.25 million ($1.6 million)between 2009, when he was relieved of his duties as finance minister following the last election, until July this year. He said it had all been properly taxed and pointed out that in making a full disclosure, he had gone beyond the transparency requirements imposed by German parliament, of which he is a member.
The debate over his private income has overshadowed his nomination as SPD chancellor candidate by subjecting him to criticism of being beholden to the financial sector that richly rewarded his speaking engagements, and of being too far removed from typical supporters of the center-left party, which has its roots in the labor movement.
Criticism levelled by lawmakers from Merkel's coalition of conservatives and pro-business Free Democrats is likely to die down now that Steinbrück has made a full disclosure and challenged them to follow his example.
The grumblings within his own party are likely to be more damaging to him, say some media commentators. If Steinbrück is to have any chance of unseating Merkel next year, he will have to mobilize all the SPD's supporters. And these last few weeks may have driven a psychological wedge between him and the grass roots of the party whose left wing already had doubts about whether he was the right man to represent an agenda of social justice.
Left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung writes:
"There's no reason to accuse Steinbrück of being in anyone's pocket. But it's a fact that Steinbrück pushed for the deregulation of markets while he was finance minister. If he hadn't been finance minister, he definitely wouldn't have earned more than one million euros from that sector. There's a troubling connection between his office and his private financial interests. It's a gray area that needn't have anything to do with corruption or direct influence. But the lack of clarity is damaging to democracy.
"That's why precise rules are needed on what former ministers can do and what they mustn't. It is becoming increasingly clear what Steinbrück lacks as a chancellor candidate: a sense of what everyday life is like for ordinary people in this country. There's too much Me with him, and not enough We, there's a lot of distance to his party and a rather blustering self confidence. In order to have a chance against an astute Angela Merkel, the Social Democrats will have to give its own clientele and its sympathizers a very good reason to vote for them. That will be more than difficult with a candidate who above all wants to keep his own party off his back."
Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"Did Peer Steinbrück do wrong when he took money for ordinary speaking engagements at financial institutions? Yes. But the fact that he demanded or received high fees is less of a problem. It's the timing. Steinbrück earned over a million euros as an active member of parliament. Since 2009 he had given the impression that he regarded his first term as parliamentarian as his last, at least until the end of 2011. He may have thought it was the right time and justifiable for him to make money from his political career as it drew to a close. But it hadn't ended yet. And that's his problem now. Why did Steinbrück do that? Why did he lack the right judgment?"
"Perhaps one should dig a little deeper and take a look at the political system we have today. More precisely: the political class of leading professional politicians Steinbrück belongs to. They're not just members of parliament, which almost sounds old-fashioned. Being people's representatives who represent constituencies or at least parties isn't their 'main occupation.' That's a job for the backbenchers who make it into parliament for just one or two terms. The political class see themselves as something different. They are state managers. Other rules apply to them."
"State manager Steinbrück is an experienced player in a game in which the political class deals with cunning allies and opponents -- companies, the financial sector, trade unions, lobby groups. And compared with their representatives, one's own remuneration may appear inadequate. They see themselves as poor earners at the table, given the scale of their tasks. So they try to turn their political career to gold, if possible, as hired speakers or as consultants to financial institutions...."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"By disclosing the income he received from lectures, Peer Steinbrück has tried to counter the criticism levelled at him over the money he has been earning on the side. He was only moderately successful -- but successful enough to ensure that the debate can now at last return to the substance of politics."
"The list of fees and speaking engagements is impressive, in some parts bizarre. It shows that the politician likes to take what the market offers for good speakers. That can amount to 25,000 for a visit to the Bochum public utility company -- which casts a stranger light on the utility of an indebted municipality than it does on Steinbrück."
"We really don't want to know any more from Peer Steinbrück about this issue. ... It doesn't tell us more about the candidate than we already know. Steinbrück and the SPD can feel free now to accuse the conservatives and the FDP of ducking the issue themselves. But that should be the end of it then. It's time the differences between the government and the opposition become evident on more significant issues than this one."
-- David Crossland
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