Minister Scrapes Scandal Season and Name Changes in German Politics

Some say German politics is boring. But a rash of oddities this year suggests otherwise. From transport ministers doubling the speed limit to a cabinet member with a dozen first names, political weirdness is alive and well in Germany.

Among foreign correspondents in Germany, there is a common complaint. "Nothing ever happens here," they say. Aside from historical naval gazing, some industrial news and the occasional integration debate, so goes the grumbling, political headlines from the European Union's biggest country tend to be snoozers.

This month, though, the political pages have resembled a reprise of 1920s Berlin cabaret. Bumbling ministers abound wherever one looks. And the stories just keep getting stranger.

Take, for example, Oliver Wittke, until this week the minister of transport for the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He resigned on Wednesday following weeks of criticism after he was ticketed for driving 109 kilometers per hour (68 miles per hour) in a 50 kph (31 mph) zone last November. The politician was fined €175 and his driver's license was revoked for eight weeks.

Entertaining to be sure -- and made even more so by the fact that the minister, who was nailed in 2000 for a similar infraction (including a four-week license revocation), defended himself by complaining about the speed trap he fell victim to. The village he was driving through, he said, was little more than "a house on the left, fields on the right and a bunch of cows." During his eight weeks of immobility, Wittke's official duties saw him promoting a local campaign for slower driving.

Wittke, though, wasn't the only minister to run into road problems recently. Michael Glos, until recently Germany's Economy Minister, became involved in a minor misadventure on his way to an official reception for Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Berlin last week. Upon reaching a police roadblock erected for the event, Glos was initially prevented from passing because the officer manning the barricade didn't recognize the minister. Glos' driver ultimately drove over the policeman's foot, sending him to the hospital. Glos apologized to the officer, but denied that he threatened him with the "end of his police career" as reported in the Berlin media.

Glos, as it happens, resigned over the weekend -- but not because of his driver's moment of inattention. Rather, the Bavarian politician had become irate at the degree to which he has recently been ignored by Chancellor Merkel. His replacement ? A man named -- take a deep breath -- Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. (Media scandal of the week: Somebody added an extra "Wilhelm" to his name in the Wikipedia entry and it was repeated in most German news outlets.)

And yet, when it comes to names, the new economy minister isn't even the best story of this week. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is currently in the process of revving up his campaign for chancellor against incumbent Angela Merkel. As part of his campaign, he has apparently decided to drop the "Walter" from his name. In recent appearances, colleagues from his Social Democratic party have introduced Steinmeier merely as "Frank." "All my friends who know me from Lower Saxony just call me 'Frank,'" Steinmeier said this week, explaining the change.

One wonders if the change is a consequence of the SPD's recent shellacking in Hesse state elections in late January. The party's candidate there went by the rather awkward moniker Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel.

Speaking of candidates, perhaps the oddest political storyline is the one currently being played out in the eastern German state of Thuringia. State elections are set to be held at the end of August, but it still isn't clear if Governor Dieter Althaus, despite his popularity, will run for re-election. Althaus is still recovering from a New Year's day collision on the ski slopes  which left him with a serious concussion and the woman he collided with dead. Whether Althaus will ultimately face charges of involuntary manslaughter remains unclear.

Still, when it comes to really juicy scandals, foreign correspondents might have a point. And a certain nostalgia for the past is understandable. Like the early 1990s, for instance. Back in 1991, Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister Karl-Heinz Funke was charged with insulting a police officer. His crime? After returning to port after a day-long, well-lubricated outing on a ship, Funke found himself confronted with farmers protesting agricultural policy. Funke insulted the demonstrators and the police for having "low intelligence quotients."

He then announced he was going to cut agricultural subsides -- before opening his fly and urinating in front of all present. His political career, amazingly, didn't suffer.

cew/cgh -- with wire reports
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